Cyber security about economics, too

Dean C. Garfield photo

Obama has recently focused on the need to reinvent American ingenuity, reaching a level of research and development not seen since the space race and connecting “every part of America to the digital age” — all part of our “Sputnik moment.”

But none of this is possible without securing the nation’s digital infrastructure.

Unfortunately, America’s perception of cybersecurity is stuck in time. Since the 1990s, much of the cybersecurity conversation – largely about harmful computer viruses and publicized data breaches involving banks and credit card companies – has centered around the likelihood that criminals and terrorists will try to bring the Internet to a screeching halt.

This will always be a threat. But the significant growth in connectivity and devices, combined with the economic importance of our critical infrastructure, requires us to rethink the broader issues.

The cybersecurity discussion in 2011 should be far different than just a few years ago. Rather than let fear of hypothetical events shape our thinking, it’s time we recognize that securing global networks is fundamental to job creation, economic growth and U.S. competitiveness globally.

Last August, the Commerce Department hinted at the connection by convening a task force to examine cybersecurity’s effects on innovation. Industry losses of intellectual property to data theft in 2008 amounted to as much as $1 trillion, according to a Purdue University study. By all accounts, setting aside cybersecurity would send a dangerous signal at a time when it’s clear that we’re playing Russian roulette with our Internet-based economy.

Three core measures should guide us going forward:

First, let’s take an inventory of what’s already working and build on it. Many in the private sector, including Cisco, Intel, HP and Microsoft, have already invested heavily in cybersecurity R&D, global security standards, emergency response to threats and improved education and awareness.

One example is the IT Information Sharing and Analysis Center, a non-profit center founded and operated by the high-tech sector to exchange information among companies — and with the Department of Homeland Security — to identify, manage and mitigate IT infrastructure risks.

Second, let’s establish, promote and adhere to global cybersecurity standards. Technologically speaking, it makes perfect sense for U.S.-based companies to be leaders in working across borders on this. The U.S. pioneered the first personal computer in the 1970s, and fueled the Internet boom of the 1990s.

Nearly two decades after the birth of the modern Internet, we are lacking commitment on the part of government to globally recognized cybersecurity standards in the same way that international laws and trade agreements are promoted.

Facebook, Twitter and many other cloud-based platforms have gained global prominence in the last few years. Americans, in particular, spent nearly a quarter of their time on Internet social networks in 2010, compared to 16 percent the year before. The need for global standards that increase Internet security, while encouraging innovation, has never been greater.

Third, let’s align our cybercrime efforts with those of more traditional ones. This means focusing on bad actors and their threats by empowering governments to better use current laws and information-sharing practices to respond to cyber threats and incidents — domestic and international.

Basics also matter, including raising awareness, educating consumers and constantly staying one step ahead of those who threaten the stability of global networks. Government and industry should work together to help set the tone.

As the Internet, business models and threats evolve, so will cybersecurity challenges. If we don’t put the issue in the proper context and make measurable progress this year, we risk losing out on long-term competitiveness — and the job growth that comes with it.

By shining the spotlight on what’s already working, and making relevant improvements where needed, what we build today can be the basis of economic strength and well-being. If we ignore this opportunity, we will be undercutting the policies that may, one day, be credited with giving America its much-needed second chance.

Dean Garfield is the president and chief executive officer of the Information Technology Industry Council.

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