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Cybersecurity

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National defense and law enforcement officials have been stepping up their warnings in recent months about the threat of cyberattacks, even putting the danger on a level with terrorism.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr. told a Senate committee last month that “all sectors of our country,” including private networks, are at risk of cyberattack from foreign governments, criminal hackers and cyberterrorists.

FBI Director Robert Mueller has said that cybersecurity “has grown to be right up there” with terrorism.

Iran, North Korea and China have been accused of government-sponsored cyberattacks against business and economic interests. In one such attack last month, North Korea shut down tens of thousands of computers and servers at South Korean news outlets and banks for several days. The attack did not affect possible government and infrastructure targets but banking operations were hindered and some TV broadcasters were unable to access news, an indication of the broad social and economic impacts of cyberattacks.

According to the Internet security firm, Mandiant Corp., China’s Communist Party has been behind “systematic cyberespionage and data theft against organizations around the world,” including more than 100 targets in the United States.

Besides disrupting financial networks and communications, cyberattacks are used to gain access to business trade secrets, intellectual property and research data. They can also gain control over critical infrastructure, such as electric grids and water systems.

Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has called cyberattacks “the most important national security threat” facing the United States.

President Obama earlier this year issued an executive order to allow sharing of data between government agencies. It would also help create voluntary industry security standards, but broader legislation is needed to address legal barriers to data sharing. However, President Obama and congressional Republicans are at odds over what steps to take next.

The House on Wednesday passed the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act to facilitate sharing between government and business. Businesses would be able to share data without worrying about antitrust laws and would be given legal immunity from hacking if they acted in good faith to protect their networks.

A similar House-passed bill died in the Senate last year and could face the same fate this year with opposition from President Obama, who threatened to veto the legislation before it was passed over concerns about insufficient privacy protections for Americans. Privacy rights and civil liberties groups want industry to remove personal identifiable information, such as health or credit records, before sharing data with the government.

In a concession to privacy concerns, the bill would make the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice recipients of the data rather than military agencies to give it civilian oversight.

President Obama needs to work with congressional Democrats and Republicans to develop bipartisan legislation to enhance cybersecurity before a foreign power or enemy can deliver a catastrophic attack that could cripple the economy or infrastructure.

As Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said, “There is too much at stake for Congress to fail to act.”

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