Is Cyberspace Getting Safer?

WASHINGTON -- The cybersecurity branch of the federal Homeland Security Department is taking stock not quite a year after its inception, pointing to some education programs and urging more partnerships with private industry.

This year, the National Cyber Security Division plans to expand its recently launched National Cyber Alert System and enlist help from industry in achieving its goals. These include expanding its Web site to boost public awareness of security issues and determining how to guard against cyberattacks on the nation's digital infrastructure.

Milestones in Cybersecurity

The organization noted the one-year anniversary of the release of the Bush Administration's National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace. The document describes things that companies, individuals, and schools can do to improve cybersecurity.

The NCSD also created the Cyber Interagency Incident Management Group (Cyber IIMG), an organization dedicated to finding ways to preempt cyberattacks and to help the government prepare for future attacks. The Cyber IIMG brings together specialists from different parts of the government, from law enforcement to intelligence, in support of the effort.

The NCSD, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, was created in June 2003 to serve as a "national focal point for cybersecurity issues" and to implement the National Strategy, says Amit Yoran, director of the National Cyber Security Division.

This year the government also established a critical infrastructure information network--a private net not accessible through the public Internet. The network is intended to function as a government communications resource in case the Internet and other forms of computer-based communications become inoperable. The NCSD has "expanded significantly" the network, though it remains incomplete, according to Yoran.

In a summit last December, the NSCD teamed with private industries to identify major areas of concentration for cybersecurity, such as increasing awareness of and early warning about security breaches. While Yoran describes the levels of enthusiasm and ability as high, he rates the current status of public-private partnerships "unacceptable," saying he wants to see more participation.

Web Site Well-Received

In January, the NCSD launched a National Cyber Alert System. The coordinated security system is designed to keep computer users informed of security hazards and to provide e-mail updates upon request.

Yoran says the new Web site has already reached millions of computer users. The day it launched, the site drew more than one million hits. The organization has dispatched several security alerts by e-mail already, including one this week about yet another computer virus making the rounds.

"Within less than a week of the system's launch, more than a quarter million direct subscribers were receiving the national cyber alerts [that] we publish," Yoran says. "And unless I'm mistaken, that makes it the broadest distribution site for cyber security information to the world. And we're still picking up thousands of subscribers a day."

Yoran promises a "continued focus on broadening the reach of the National Cyber Alert System" and an increase in its capabilities.

Slow Route to Goals

Yoran says that a "broad reach and qualified collaboration programs" are crucial to the NCSD's ultimate success, which may take years, even decades. He declines to give details, but notes that the NSCD is forming new partnerships between public agencies and private organizations to promote shared security goals.

He notes, however, that the agency is urging software developers to produce more-secure, less vulnerable, and less "loose" programs. Instead, the coders are "encouraged [to] adopt...automated technologies that guide and force [them] to produce code with fewer vulnerabilities and fewer bugs," Yoran says.

Nevertheless, "no one organization, no matter how well-resourced, can accomplish even a small portion of the tasks which are laid out in the national strategy," Yoran says. He anticipates that the NSCD's effects may not show change for years.

"Candid expectation-setting about how long it will take to reap the rewards of these efforts is required," Yoran says. The organization measures its progress by "days and weeks rather than fiscal years," partly because security breaches and threats are becoming more sophisticated.

"The constant challenge we have in cybersecurity is that it's a constant challenge," says Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America. He adds that he doubts the battle to secure cyberspace will end any time soon.

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