Obama revives call for immunity to companies sharing threat data

The president is expected to announce the measure Tuesday

Dusting off a 2011 to-do list, U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to propose legislation to protect companies sharing computer threat data with the government from prosecution, according to reports.

In 2011, Obama had recommended legislation that would provide for companies to voluntarily share cybersecurity information with the federal government and had proposed offering them immunity when sharing cybersecurity information with the Department of Homeland Security.

"At the same time, the proposal mandates robust privacy oversight to ensure that the voluntarily shared information does not impinge on individual privacy and civil liberties," according to a brief circulated by the White House at the time. But Congress did not pass this and some other cybersecurity proposals outlined in 2011.

The hack in November of Sony Pictures and earlier breaches of the point-of-sale systems of retail giants like Home Depot and Target have however brought in a new sense of urgency to the measures.

On Monday, for example, Obama said he would ask Congress to pass a law that would require companies that are hit by data breaches to notify affected consumers within 30 days, and another law that would give consumers more control over their digital data.

The new proposal to be announced Tuesday aims to grant "liability protection to companies that provide indicators of cyberattacks and threats" to DHS, according to a report in The Washington Post, quoting an administration official. The DHS would in turn get to share the data "in as near real time as possible" with other agencies involved in cybersecurity, which could include the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Monday that Obama would be announcing more cybersecurity measures Tuesday, but did not provide details. Earnest criticized Congress for not fulfilling its responsibility to deal with "this critically important issue," but expressed hope that recent attacks on companies had hopefully "got the attention of people on Capitol Hill, that they actually need to fulfill their responsibilities to actually make progress on this issue."

The plan for sharing of data with the government by companies has been controversial because of privacy concerns, and grounded an earlier bill. The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act passed the House of Representatives in 2013, but a similar bill was stalled in the Senate. One of the co-authors of the bill, U.S. Representative C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat from Maryland, reintroduced the bill last week.

Companies will have to take certain privacy measures in order to qualify for the liability protections, and would be required to scrub unnecessary personal information, according to the new proposal.

The package will, among other things, authorize the government to increase penalties for computer crimes and criminalize the sale of stolen U.S. financial information, according to The Hill.

Information sharing cybersecurity bills would not have stopped the Sony hack and companies can already share information concerning computer threats with other companies and the government, wrote Mark Jaycox, legislative analyst at digital privacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a blog post.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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