Senate debate over cyber security bill fails to address privacy concerns

Senate Democrats and Republicans have different ideas about how far the government should go to protect infrastructural networks. They are missing the most important point. Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, Wednesday June 20th, 2012 – Passage of the cybersecurity bill has stalled in the Senate as Democrats and Republicans show few signs of compromise over the scale of governmental provisions for infrastructural protection.

But what’s most troubling about this ongoing debate has nothing to do with the extent of infrastructural protection called for by many observers. Energy and water systems, financial systems, and transportation networks are vulnerable to attack, and their security should involve a degree of governmental oversight.

What’s most troubling about the cybersecurity bill is that in return for any governmental compromise over infrastructural protection, President Obama will inevitably have to support further erosion of individual privacy protections if the bill gets through Congress.

According to a June 6th letter addressed to Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell from a bi-partisan group of former national security advisors, the cyber threat facing the United States is not only “imminent,” but “it represents one of the most serious challenges since our national security since the onset of the nuclear age sixty years ago.”

Members of the bi-partisan group, including former secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, are particularly concerned with the lack of urgency surrounding the passage of the legislation. They worry that “the window of opportunity to pass legislation that is in our view critically necessary to protect our nation. The original bill was introduced by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein in February and would be incorporated into the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act of 2012. The legislation is designed to provide “increased authority for cyber-threat information sharing and reduces legal barriers to allow private entities to share cybersecurity information with each other and the federal government.”

Senator John McCain has sponsored an alternate version of the bill entitled the Strengthening and Enhancing Cybersecurity by Using Research, Education, Information and Technology Act (SECURE IT). This version would also promote “collaboration and information sharing” and enhance “research programs to protect our critical networks.”

The major difference between the two versions has to do with McCain’s insistence on “giving business the tools they need to protect themselves from the looming threat of cyber criminals.” Feinstein’s plan outlines minimum “performance requirements” for businesses under the guidance of the Department of Homeland Security.

This difference just boils down to political posturing and conflicting ideology over the role of “governmental regulation.” Beyond that, both versions are similar in scope – and similarly flawed. Even without the imposition of “minimum performance requirements,” the bulk of this legislation still lays the foundation for greatly increased governmental capacity to use (and potentially abuse) the private information of individual citizens.

Some Senators believe the bill will not reach the floor prior to the July 4th break, jeopardizing its chances of being passed before the current legislative session ends. If it does however, it appears the White House won’t stand in the way.

Although Obama has expressed its reservations over the implications of this legislation in terms of how it could compromise the privacy of consumer information (and has threatened to veto the legislation if it passes Congress in the past), the White House has also issued a statement specifically outlining that they would not back any version of the bill that fails to enhance infrastructural protection.

In doing so, the administration would not only implicitly support legislation that dramatically increases the already wide scope of the Department of Homeland Security, but it explicitly fails to give due regard to the original privacy considerations Obama expressed concern over earlier this year.

Whatever form the legislation takes, the government is walking a tricky line on this one. Enhancing the capacities of private organizations to detect and avert cyber-attacks on American infrastructure is one thing, but strengthening the capacities of corporations and government agencies to share private consumer information is quite another.

Although Feinstein’s bill “does not provide any new authorities for conducting surveillance” and would ensure that “information shared with the federal government is protected,” the removal of legal barriers over the use of information represents a stark departure from privacy laws developed and adjusted over many decades as the mass exhange of information has steadily become the defining feature of our society.

“Privacy protections” or not, this bill represents another stage in the evolution of the Americal surveillance state following the passage of the original Patriot Act under George W. Bush.

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Mike Lapointe

Mike is a young political writer interested in analyzing the complexities of American politics and society. His work has appeared on the Huffington Post, Digital Journal, and on his blog. He’s recently reported on the ‘Occupy’ movement, the Republican presidential primaries, and state politics in Florida.

He earned his Master of Arts in Comparative Political Science from the University of Western Ontario in October 2010, and will begin a Masters in Journalism at Carleton University in September 2012. He is currently based in Orlando, Florida. 


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