Pawlenty: Hackers pose almost 'existential' threat to US

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Hackers represent a nearly existential threat to the U.S. economy and infrastructure, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) told lawmakers several times on Thursday.

The Financial Services Roundtable president did not hold back in describing what he sees as the danger from cyberattackers worldwide.

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“You’ve got a material, [bordering] on existential threat to the country,” he told members of the House Financial Services Committee.

“I’ve come to think of this as a threat to the national security and critical infrastructure of the United States of America,” he said later. “It rises to the level of being worthy of being viewed in that light.” 

Pawlenty, a former GOP presidential candidate, made the remarks in the course of expressing support for a national data security standard.

“Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good,” he said. “We would like to have these standards apply across the board.”

House lawmakers have been unable so far to coalesce around one proposal due to disagreements over the issue of pre-empting state consumer protections.

At least four data security bills have been introduced in the House alone. One passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee in April, but it has failed to see a floor vote, after partisan conflict erupted during its markup.

Thursday’s hearing included testimony from representatives of the retail and payment industries, in addition to Pawlenty.

Several times, tensions were palpable between Pawlenty and Brian Dodge, executive vice president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

Describing the data protection standards required of banks under the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, Pawlenty suggested that breached retailers were not up to par.

“The other sectors that don’t have these kinds of standards and capabilities need to up their game, and you can help lead that effort,” Pawlenty told panel Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas).

Later, Dodge said financial services institutions experienced more confirmed data losses in 2014 than retailers, citing a tally by Verizon Enterprise Solutions.

“The standards that are applied to the financial industry are not perfect,” he said pointedly.

The newest House data security bill was introduced May 1 by Reps. Randy NeugebauerRandy NeugebauerPrice-fixing debit card fees hurts free markets, but two members of Congress want to bring It back Durbin amendment is a failure for customers: Repeal the merchant markup Overnight Finance: GOP's budget 'SWAT' team | What to watch at IRS impeachment hearing | Sanders bucks Dem leaders on Puerto Rico bill MORE (R-Texas) and John Carney (D-Del.). It was quickly supported by financial trade groups, which said it would hold merchants to a higher standard.

Whether the Neugebauer-Carney bill will make significant progress remains to be seen.