U.S. cyber readiness lagging, panel says

SAN FRANCISCO -- Cybercriminals are becoming more sophisticated, more organized and more dangerous, according to security experts at this week's RSA show.

At the same time, federal funding for cybersecurity research is lagging, legislation aimed at toughening up the laws against cybercrime is stalled and cooperation between private and public sectors could be better.

That was the relatively grim picture painted by panelists discussing national cyber security readiness.

An estimated 250,000 computers are compromised every day by botherders, according to Robert Holleyman, president and CEO of the Business Software Alliance. The number of exploits is seven times higher than it was a year ago, and the cyber threat is "growing exponentially,'' he said.

"It's important to go after the criminals,'' said Holleyman, who pointed out that consumers are increasingly subject to organized attacks aimed at extracting financial resources. But he said legislation aimed at botherders is unlikely to pass this year.

U.S Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.), chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Cybersecurity, said the issue of cybersecurity had been, until recently, "largely ignored by government.''

Langevin agreed with Holleyman that meaningful legislation will probably not happen this year. "It's frustrating for all of us,'' he said.

He added that the two major priorities for the federal government are securing its own networks and securing the nation's critical infrastructure. "We have a lot of work to do'' on both counts, according to Langevin.

And he said he wasn't satisfied with the efforts of the nation's electric utilities to secure the power grid, which is often cited as an attractive target for cyber terrorists.

Greg Garcia, assistant secretary for cyber security and communications in the Department of Homeland Security, described the situation in Washington as a "mud wresting match'' between Democrats and Republicans. "We need a better collaborative environment,'' Garcia added.

He said the big task facing the Department of Homeland Security is "strengthening federal networks.'' He acknowledged that cyber crime is a global problem and said his department is working to "build out a network of protectors'' across the world.

Garcia pointed out that when cybercriminals took down Internet access for the entire country of Estonia, cybercrime teams from NATO and from the U. S. Department of Defense helped to get the network back up and "mitigate the damage.''

But when it comes to sharing resources and best practices between countries, there's plenty of room for improvement, according to panelists.

And Langevin agreed that "we're not spending enough on cyber R&D,'' a paltry $15 million this year. But he said that situation is beginning to improve.

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