PALO ALTO, Calif. — President Barack Obama is asking Silicon Valley’s tech elite to partner with federal authorities to thwart mounting cyber attacks while promising to make it easier for hacked companies to share information about breaches and protect citizen privacy.
“Grappling with how government protects the American people from adverse events while at the same time making sure that government itself is not abusing its capabilities is hard,” Obama said Friday during a visit to Stanford University. “The cyber world is sort of the wild, wild West, and to some degree we’re asked to be the sheriff.”
Obama told more than 1,500 business leaders, students, professors and others that threat information must be shared and responded to quickly. And he signed an executive order aimed at making it easier for private firms to have access to classified information about cyber attacks.
He also stressed there would be oversight to ensure protections for privacy and civil liberties.
Partnering with the federal government is a hard sell in the Silicon Valley. The pace of innovation in California’s tech hub outstrips the Beltway bureaucracy, and tech firms chafe at regulations that could limit their reach. Further, disclosures from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden exposing sweeping U.S. government surveillance programs that tapped into data from firms including Google and Yahoo have angered many.
“The new proposals face significant headwinds, both legislatively from Congress and cooperatively from heavyweights in the tech sector,” said Ben Desjardins, director of security solutions at cybersecurity firm Radware. “Based on the Snowden leaks, these companies believe they’ve already been badly burned by the government, and have very little to gain by publicly backing the president’s proposals.”
Nonetheless, there was agreement at the daylong summit among White House officials and leaders from a broad business sector — including utilities, health care, insurance and finance — that the threat is getting worse, and no single institution can take it on.
“I don’t think any of us spend enough on this. That’s why the public-private partnership is so important,” said MasterCard CEO Ajay Banga. “Right now there are people trying to hack into all our companies, and one of those idiots might succeed. That’s the fearful part.”
Numerous companies, ranging from mass retailers like Target and Home Depot to Sony Pictures Entertainment to health insurer Anthem, have suffered costly and embarrassing data breaches in recent months.
The Twitter feed of U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the volatile Middle East, was hacked recently, while the White House reported detecting “activity of concern” in October on the unclassified computer network used by White House staffers.
While a growing cadre of information security experts have for years grappled with cybersecurity as online communications boomed, their concerns have largely been downplayed.
But with record public and private sector data breaches last year — the Identity Theft Resource Center found that 85 million records were exposed last year — the discussion is moving from the tech geeks to policy wonks.
“We must get this right. History has shown us that sacrificing our right to privacy can have dire consequences,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook, who described the online world as being in a pivotal moment. “If those of us in positions of responsibility fail to do everything in our power to protect the right of privacy, we risk something far more valuable than money. We risk our way of life.”
The Obama administration wants Congress to supersede an existing patchwork of state laws by setting a national standard for when companies must notify consumers that their personal information has been compromised.
The executive order that Obama signed Friday encourages members of the private sector to share information about threats to cybersecurity with each other and with the federal government. He also wants Congress to pass legislation.
While the focus of the White House visit to Stanford University Friday was cybersecurity, the cadre of White House officials and business leaders who traveled from an East Coast gripped in a brutally cold winter into a wave of warm, sunny skies couldn’t help but comment about the weather.
“I’ve got to admit, I kind of want to go here,” Obama said, drawing cheers. “I was trying to figure out, why it is that a really nice place like this is wasted on young people who don’t fully appreciate what you got? It’s really nice, and everybody here is so friendly and smart, and it’s beautiful, and what’s there not to like?”