Cybersecurity summit: Will government, businesses cooperate more?

President Obama urged US companies at a cybersecurity summit Friday to partner with the government in meeting cyberthreats. But some tech giants and privacy advocates are still wary of government's role. 

Jeff Chiu/AP
President Obama speaks at the White House Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection in Stanford, Calif., Friday, Feb. 13, 2015.

President Obama hosted the first White House Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection at Stanford University in California on Friday.

The event aimed to bolster cybersecurity by spurring collaboration between the public and private sectors in a bid to improve data security and protect critical infrastructure.

"It’s one of the great paradoxes of our time that the very technologies that empower us to do great good can also be used to undermine us and inflict great harm," Mr. Obama said, addressing the summit.

During the event, Obama signed an executive order to promote the sharing of cybersecurity-threat information among US companies and between the private sector and the federal government. The order lays out a framework that will enable the Department of Homeland Security to quickly identify and defend against cyberthreats. 

The event was scheduled more than a month ago, before the hack of Anthem Inc., America's No. 2 insurance company, which put the data of some 80 million customers at risk. The breach highlights the urgent need for increased cybersecurity measures, observers say.

Top Obama administration officials, including homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco, economic adviser Jeff Zients, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, and Deputy Secretary of Energy Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, addressed the summit. 

The CEOs of Google, Facebook, and Yahoo, who have been critical of US domestic surveillance as disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, did not attend the summit.

"In this, dare I say, post-Snowden environment, it is key for us, it is critical for us, to strengthen the dialogue, to continue the dialogue, and that's much of what this conference is about," said Secretary Johnson at the event.

During his speech, Obama stressed the serious nature of cyberattacks: “Cyberthreats are a challenge to our national security. Our financial systems, our power grid, and health systems run on systems connected to the Internet. Foreign criminals are probing these systems every day."

Noting the Sony Pictures hack, he said: “These attacks are hurting American companies and American jobs.”

The solution, said the president, is “government and industry working together, sharing appropriate information as true partners.”

After his remarks at the summit, Obama was scheduled to host a roundtable discussion with Silicon Valley business leaders.

A spokesman for the Republican National Committee dismissed the conference as an excuse for the president to rub elbows with wealthy donors.

"The American people want President Obama to work with Congress to create real solutions to our nation's cybersecurity threats," said RNC spokesman Ninio Fetalvo, according to the San Jose Mercury News. "But all they're getting is another speech with empty rhetoric that is just an excuse for him to do what he does best: fundraise."

Meanwhile, privacy advocates are especially concerned about potential government overreach in cyberspace.

"It's not clear that we need to open the door wider," Gabe Rottman, the American Civil Liberties Union’s policy adviser, told CBS News.

"Information that identifies who we associate with – our financial activities, our health-care information, information that identifies those aspects of our lives and then identifies us – that information needs to be stripped out, unless it's necessary to address the cybersecurity threat," he said. "And the proposals for information sharing that have come out from both Congress and the White House don't sufficiently ensure that that happens."

But Obama administration officials stress that the president’s growing concern for cybersecurity includes the need to protect citizens’ information.

"Cybersecurity and consumer protection are two sides of the same coin," Mr. Zients said in a briefing with reporters. "When a company invests in strong cybersecurity, they are protecting not just their own networks, but in most cases, their customers' information and security as well."

Much of the summit was dedicated to discussions about how to protect consumers' data.

"If those of us in positions of responsibility fail to do everything in our power to protect the right of privacy, we risk something far more valuable than money. We risk our way of life,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook, who was also among the event’s speakers.

The summit was held just four months after the administration launched its BuySecure initiative, which aims to provide more support to identity-theft victims and encourage the development of stronger security technologies, among other things.

It also comes in the wake of the Obama administration’s announcement on Tuesday that it will create a Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center to pool data on cyberbreaches. The administration will need the cooperation of the private sector if the center is to be effective.

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