SAN FRANCISCO–The Obama administration’s top information security officials hit the stage at the RSA Conference Tuesday, looking to drum up support for several of the president’s key security and privacy initiatives, including a still-nebulous plan for protecting users’ freedom and privacy on the Web.
The plea for help from the thousands of security experts and enterprise executives gathered here for RSA came from Howard Schmidt, the president’s cybersecurity adviser and Philip Reitinger, the deputy undersecretary of the National Protection and Programs directorate at the Department of Homeland Security, who spoke as part of a town hall meeting on cybersecurity. Schmidt, a former top security official at Microsoft and eBay, used the Internet shutdown that accompanied the recent revolution in Egypt as an example of what President Obama wants to prevent.
“It is incumbent upon all of us to make sure that we preserve those freedoms,” Schmidt said. “We’re going to hold others accountable on Internet freedom and make sure that we do those same things ourselves. We need to lead by example.”
Earlier in the day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a similar speech to a group of students at George Washington University in which she emphasized the need for some framework of rules to help guarantee a basic level of freedom online.
“For the United States, the choice is clear. On the spectrum of
Internet freedom, we place ourselves on the side of openness. Now, we
recognize that an open Internet comes with challenges. It calls for
ground rules to protect against wrongdoing and harm. And Internet
freedom raises tensions, like all freedoms do. But we believe the
benefits far exceed the costs,” Clinton said.
What’s less clear in all of this is exactly what the Obama administration intends to do to achieve these goals. At RSA, Schmidt and Reitinger both said that in order to improve both security and privacy online, the government needs help from the private sector. This has been a common theme in government information security plans for more than a decade and the idea of more public-private partnerships has been dismissed by many in the industry as futile. But Reitinger said that they can work if done correctly.
“When we say public-private partnership, people don’t know what we mean. Neither the government nor the private sector can solve these problems on their own,” he said. “People hear this and think we’re just going to walk away saying kumbaya. That’s not what we’re talking about. The successful ones actually are a partnership and they’re real and outcome-focused.”
None of the panelists offered much in the way of specifics on what the administration planned to do, aside from previously announced initiatives such as the plan to create online IDs. But Schmidt stressed that there were plans in the works that would get things moving.
“We need to ensure we have the safeguards in place to protect people,” he said. “It’s all about collaboration. We need new ways to work faster. It’s critical to our future and having that economic engine that we all need.”