published Friday, August 10th, 2012

U.S. cyber security at risk

Everyone, it seems, understands the need to safeguard personal and business computers from hackers. There's also general agreement that the computer systems and networks that are vital to the nation's military and infrastructure require protection. No one, though, seems willing to enact sensible legislation that would help protect those vital systems. Indeed, most public officials appear to prefer to ignore the problem and hope it goes away. It won't.

There's plenty of evidence of that. Almost every month, there are reports that a site has been hacked, thereby exposing individuals or businesses to the loss of sensitive information and other data. And though the government is hardly forthcoming when it comes to announcing security breaks, it stands to reason that there are regular and highly ingenious attacks on its vital computer networks and systems.

There has been a sustained effort to pass legislation to strengthen the nation's cyber-defenses in the face of such threats. But Congress has dropped the ball. The House produced a bill so riddled with problems that a veto was likely had it reached the White House.

More recently, the Senate left town for a recess without approving its cyber-security bill. Sens. Joe I. Lieberman, I-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, produced a viable bill to strengthen U.S. cybersecurity. It ran afoul of right-wing Republicans and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Both opposed government imposition of regulations on private entities, and the bill was a lost cause.

The sponsors then watered down the bill, making the security requirements voluntary rather than a mandate in hope of winning passage. The Senate still rejected it. Now, Congress is in recess and hackers still are at work. The nation's most sensitive computer networks -- those that help operate electric grids, nuclear power plants, water treatment facilities, transportation systems and systems critical to national defense -- remain highly vulnerable.

There are legitimate questions about the form cyber-security laws should take. Many individuals and groups correctly worry that poorly framed cyber-security legislation would supersede privacy guarantees or create a pretext for government snooping. Those concerns have some legitimacy and should be addressed, but they do not eliminate the need for protective measures.

It is possible to craft legislation that balances the need for enhanced cyber security with constitutional guarantees of privacy. The task should not be left to business and industry, though. Recent history has proved them incapable of providing effective electronic security on their own. Government will have to act if the nation's lack of effective deterrence is to be addressed.

That task should commence when Congress returns. Delay is dangerous. It is, experts say, possible to bring the United States to its knees by crippling vital electronic infrastructure. Congress should act on the knowledge that cyber security is as vital to national security as a trained military. Until it does, the nation is at risk.

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