Citing a looming crisis over lax computer security, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Wednesday that the Senate will debate cybersecurity legislation. The move comes despite the lack of a coherent Senate plan and could set up a showdown with House Republicans over the government’s role in forcing industry to strengthen cyber protections, according to a report by The Hill.
Reid sent a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell detailing plans to bring comprehensive cybersecurity legislation to the floor of the Senate for debate early in 2012. The move was greeted with approval by both Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
“Every day Congress fails to strengthen the cyber security of the nation’s critical infrastructure is another day of unacceptable risk for our country. Hackers, criminals, and antagonistic foreign powers are maliciously probing our cyber defenses every day on an unprecedented scale, and it is no secret they have found our defenses to be vulnerable,” said the letter, which was signed by Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn), Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Federal Financial Management Subcommittee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del).
The move comes amid increasingly urgent warnings from Congress, which has worked without success to revamp the nation’s cyber security laws to address a new generation of sophisticated, nation-backed attacks on government networks and critical infrastructure. Government watchdogs like the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have been warning for years about the vulnerability of the nation’s critical infrastructure, including electricity distribution and energy, to cyber attack. GAO has also been critical of efforts by the government to unify its cyber security operations.
There were 20 cyber security related bills introduced in the Senate this year, and another 12 in the House. Though its not clear exactly what the bill taken up next year will look like, its likely to be similar to S 413, The Cybersecurity and Internet Freedom Act of 2011, which came out of the the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in February with bipartisan support.
Capitol Hill watchers say that cybersecurity legislation may be one of a short list of issues that can find enough bipartisan support to pass Congress in an election year and get signed into law. Still, The Hill notes that there’s still plenty of daylight between the Senate’s plans and htose of the House, which tilts in the direction of industry self-regulation in all but a handful of cases and does not provide government regulators with tools (such as fines) to force compliance.