Friday, November 30, 2007

How Can Government Improve Cyber-Security?

Also from Ed Felten: How Can Government Improve Cyber-Security?

"One of the biggest challenges comes from the broad and porous border between government systems and private systems. Not only are government computers networked pervasively to privately-owner computers; but government relies heavily on off-the-shelf technologies whose characteristics are shaped by the market choices of private parties. While it’s important to better protect the more isolated, high-security government systems, real progress elsewhere will depend on ordinary technologies getting more secure.

Ordinary technologies are designed by the market, and the market is big and very hard to budge. I’ve written before about the market failures that cause security to be under-provided. The market, subject to these failures, controls what happens in private systems, and in practice also in ordinary government systems.

To put it another way, although our national cybersecurity strategy might be announced in Washington, our national cybersecurity practice will be defined in the average Silicon Valley cubicle. It’s hard to see what government can do to affect what happens in that cubicle. Indeed, I’d judge our policy as a success if we have any positive impact, no matter how small, in the cubicle.

I see three basic strategies for doing this. First, government can be a cheerleader, exhorting people to improve security, convening meetings to discuss and publicize best practices, and so on. This is cheap and easy, won’t do any harm, and might help a bit at the margin. Second, government can use its purchasing power. In practice this means deliberately overpaying for security, to boost demand for higher-security products. This might be expensive, and its effects will be limited because the majority of buyers will still be happy to pay less for less secure systems. Third, government can invest in human capital, trying to improve education in computer technology generally and computer security specifically, and supporting programs that train researchers and practitioners. This last strategy is slow but I’m convinced it can be effective."

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