Proposed ‘Cyberspace’ Office Raises Questions

Published May 6, 2010

A bill introduced by Rep. Diane Watson (D-CA) to create a federal office for cyberspace issues is raising concerns over whether the nation needs a new government bureaucracy managing the Internet.

Watson’s bill (HR 4900) would create a federal “Office for Cyberspace” to serve as the main point for all information infrastructure issues and capabilities for the federal government. It would include a Senate-appointed director and create a new federal “Cybersecurity Practice Board” which would issue new Internet regulations and force cyerbsecurity upgrades to be implemented on both government and private-sector networks that the board deems important to America’s national security interest.

Watson’s proposal comes on the heels of a Center for Strategic and International Studies report in March demanding President Obama name an “assistant for cyberspace” and create a new National Security directorate charged with monitoring threats to the nation’s Internet infrastructure.

‘A Creepy Proposal’
Ralph Benko, a technology analyst and author of the bestselling book The Web-ster’s Dictionary, says he’s alarmed by Watson’s proposed law because it would put the federal government on the road to heavily monitoring and regulating the Internet.

“The nature of bureaucracies is to seek to expand their jurisdiction and powers,” Benko said. “This is a creepy proposal. [If our present system] ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Dependent on Cyberspace
Daniel T. Kuehl, a technology researcher at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, says the number of attacks on America’s networks is reaching such huge levels that sooner or later some law must be implemented. But he suggests Watson’s proposal is probably not what’s needed.

“Our national dependence upon cyberspace is off-the-scale,” Kuehl said. “You can’t measure it. Everything we do depends on it. Everyone’s cell phones are using cyberspace right now. We depend upon it economically.

“Every time you ride the subway, you are riding on systems that are controlled and monitored through cyberspace,” he added. “Everything we do depends upon our ability to operate there. But do we need a new federal department? That remains an open question.”

Calling for Cooperation
Kuehl argues that instead of creating a federal department of cybersecurity, the government should create a new office focusing on information technology—with cybersecurity concerns but one component.

“If we are looking at this issue strictly on the cybersecurity dimension, we fail,” he said. “We need to look at the larger dimension: How do we use cyberspace for America’s strategic advantage, economic activity, overseas influence?”

Industry people, however, are skeptical of additional government involvement, he notes. “As soon as I suggest we create a national ‘Department of Information,’ people run screaming from the room,” Kuehl said, adding even technology leaders in the private sector “have kind of reached a gloomy conclusion: We will not be able to fix our security weakness in information technology until something bad happens.”

Hence he calls for a broader approach that includes input from the industry.

“We cannot protect individual networks,” Kuehl said. “We do need a holistic, across-the-board, information technology approach, but I am not sure a new federal bureaucracy charged with cybersecurity is the right answer.

“What we need is for both the government and the private sector to solve this issue together,” he said. “Government cannot solve this issue by itself, and neither can the private sector.”

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.