U.S. info-sharing initiative called a flop

Posted by: Digital Geek

U.S. info-sharing initiative called a flop - 02/11/05 11:58 PM

Nearly a year after its launch, a federal office created as a conduit for corporate America to provide the government with sensitive information about critical vulnerabilities has been all but rejected by the technology industry that helped conceive it.

The Protected Critical Infrastructure Information (PCII) program allows corporations who run key elements of U.S. infrastructure to submit details about their physical and cyber vulnerabilities to a special office within the Department of Homeland Security, with legally-enforceable assurances that the information will not be used against them or released to the public. The effort is funded at $5.5 million in the White House's 2006 budget request.

The program implements a 2002 law that was backed by the technology industry, and intended to assuage its fears that sensitive or embarrassing information shared with the government for security purposes would be released to the press and public through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The law was opposed by environmental watchdog groups and open government advocates, who feared it would provide companies with a smokescreen for corporate negligence.

Instead, the PCII program has gone completely unused, at least by the information technology world, says Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Industry Association of America. The ITAA lobbied hard for the original legislation, but takes issue with DHS's implementation.

"There's a lot of concern about whether the protections are adequate, and whether the regulations are too difficult to comply with," says Miller. "This is about the lawyers being comfortable, and they're not comfortable yet, generally. After all, you're not talking about companies sharing their advertising and marketing material, you're talking about sharing their deepest, darkest secrets in some sense."

Paperwork Daunting
The IT Information Sharing and Analysis Center, an industry security coalition whose members include Microsoft, Oracle and Intel, has not submitted a single piece of vulnerability data through the PCII program, says the ISAC's director of operations, Peter Allor. "How the regulation was instituted, I don't think followed the intent of the original law," says Allor. "That wasn't what the industry campaigned for."

One industry concern, Allor says, is that while data channeled through the PCII office is protected from public disclosure, it's subject to wide distribution to cleared personnel within the federal government and at state agencies, without the originator maintaining any further control. "A lot of states and other agencies within the government are all signed up to get the information on whatever whim the DHS has," says Allor. "The PCII program removes any opportunity for the originator to know where the information was distributed, let alone control it."

The electric power industry has also not availed itself of the program, daunted by the PCII office's requirement that any submissions be made though old fashion paper filings, says Lou Leffler, who heads the Electricity Sector ISAC. "Most of what we communicate to [DHS], on quite a regular and frequent basis, is by a secure messaging system that we developed for our industry," says Leffler, who anticipates using the PCII program when the office starts accepting electronic reports. "We are very encouraged with the idea that there's going to be, soon, an electronic submission capability for the information that we submit using the PCII coverage," says Leffler.

A spokesperson for DHS's Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate, which runs PCII, declined to comment on the program. The department hasn't released any figures on how many vulnerability reports it's taken through the office. The Electronic Privacy Information Center and government watchdog group OMB Watch are jointly suing the department under the FOIA in an effort to force the release of some details on the program.

"I know it's been used, but not extensively," says OMB Watch policy analyst Sean Moulton. "Companies got a lot of protection out of that, more protection than a lot of public interest groups were comfortable with. And they're saying that's still not enough... I really find it troubling that it's industry driving the process and not the government driving the process, when it's the public who has a stake in this. It's the public who will be harmed if these infrastructures are attacked."

Allor insists the IT-ISAC would still use the program if a matter of sufficient urgency and sensitivity arose. In the meantime, he says his ISAC continues to share vulnerability and attack data with DHS without going through the PCII office, after purging the reports of information that identifies specific companies. "The good news is we're not abusing PCII," says Allor. "We can dispel that myth."

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