Congress must help DHS combat rising cyberattacks

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When Congress returns after the elections, lawmakers have a great opportunity to pass cybersecurity legislation that already has strong bipartisan support.

Should this be a congressional priority during the lame-duck session? The answer is an emphatic yes.

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Our shared cyberspace is vulnerable to an ever-evolving range of threats, and we need to respond with the same alacrity demonstrated by our adversaries. This means legal authorities need to be clearly defined to avoid unnecessary delays. Congress should codify and clarify the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) existing responsibilities to help protect not only the dot-gov networks but to better support the efforts of the private sector as well.

In the last three weeks only, the DHS issued alerts for “Shellshock,” a new vulnerability that could allow attackers to remotely execute certain commands on millions of affected computers, and a vulnerability discovered within the Mozilla network that runs the Firefox Internet browser many people use. Earlier this year, legal uncertainty caused a delay in how quickly the DHS could address the “Heartbleed” vulnerabilities within the dot-gov system.

This year, President Obama has again proclaimed October as National Cyber Security Awareness Month to increase awareness and understanding of the important role each of us plays in securing cyberspace. Our nation’s cyber networks have become indispensable to modern life in America. They’re the very backbone of our 21st century economy and a major nerve center of our national security. But the threats to those networks include criminals and nation states, ranging in purpose from identity and data theft to espionage and disruption of critical functions. Vulnerable networks might hold the key that processes your paycheck or medical claim or brings electricity to your home. Increasingly, they handle myriad behind-the-scenes functions we rarely think of: the routing of train cars, monitoring of a safe water supply, and verification of airline passenger information.

Helping to safeguard our cyber networks is a critical element of DHS’s mission to protect the nation. To achieve this mission, the DHS requires the help of Congress.

The Homeland Security committees of the House and Senate have made real, bipartisan progress on important cyber legislation. Those clarify the responsibilities of the Department of Homeland Security in working with civilian federal agencies and the private sector to mitigate cyber risks. They also enhance the department’s authority to hire cybersecurity talent.

I urge Congress to seize the opportunity created by all of the hard work to date. The department and the Obama administration continue to stand ready at the front lines of cyber defense. Congress must pass these bills and show the American people that Congress can and will help solve the nation’s challenges.

Spaulding serves as undersecretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security.