Can government help fight the war on botnets?

As the number of internet-connected devices increases, along with the threat of botnets and potential attacks, the role of government should not be solely focused on prescribing new legal mandates.

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As the number of internet-connected devices increases, so does the threat of botnets and potential attacks.

The role of government in protecting consumers against these should not tilt toward new legal mandates, a coalition of tech-focused companies, lobbying groups and think tanks contend. Instead, they argue, government should work with the private sector and across borders to push standards and model best practices.

The White House's cybersecurity executive order, released in May, charged the secretaries of the Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security with spearheading an effort to reduce the threat of botnets and DDoS attacks.

In response to a request for comment from Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a slate of firms, trade associations and interest groups submitted their recommendations for how to best address growing security and privacy concerns.

The Information Technology and Industry Council advocated expanded the National Institute for Standards and Technology's cybersecurity framework as a model for IT suppliers globally. Under this model, companies can help propagate best practices around the globe by requiring their international partners to employ them throughout the tech ecosystem. The government role, advised ITIC, should be to "promote the Framework approach with their global government partners."

Google, for example, argued that building strong security into the design phase -- by enabling encryption and multi-factor authentication and by disallowing default passwords and backdoors -- is ultimately the responsibility of the company, and that government should not intervene by issuing regulations that could impede innovation.

"Just as policymakers in the 1990s accorded the Internet room to develop, policymakers today should adopt an approach that enables IoT to flourish and grow," Google wrote in a joint submission with its sibling company Nest. "Rather than impose new legal mandates, government can and should encourage the marketplace to do more to reward those who invest in good security practices and punish those that do not."

Where government fits, the firms argued, is in its position to convene cybersecurity experts, highlight best practices and incentivize companies to voluntarily provide information about their security practices. They also push for government to share information on device vulnerabilities, and point to the non-regulatory approaches of NTIA and the Federal Trade Commission on the IoT front as examples for broader government to follow.

In its comment, Microsoft advocated for government to encourage the use of secured endpoints through policy initiatives and to intervene as a regulator "when necessary," but notes current policy presents challenges.

Specifically, Microsoft stated that given the global nature of cybercrime and the difficulties in making attributions, the current performance metrics and challenges in cross-jurisdictional investigations "may create a disincentive for law enforcement to devote substantial time to botnet disruptions."

The U.S. Telecom Association wrote that government's "fundamental and primary role must be to support the companies that are our country's front line defenders against sophisticated criminal and nation-state adversaries."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued that legislation will have negative consequences on businesses and consumers, and that any policy effort needs to be focused on greater consumer awareness about cybersecurity.

It's not just companies that think regulation alone won't protect against botnets. The FTC has resisted regulating the internet of things, and officials from NTIA and NIST have instead advocated for collaboration between public and private sectors, as well as across borders, to address the growing threats.

The Open Technology Institute, the technology program of think tank New America, added that government can serve as a high-profile model for "good security practices by purchasing IoT technology with the security features necessary to protect their networks, and to incentivize companies to improve the security of their products."

A recent watchdog report concluded that although the Pentagon has identified many of the risks associated with IoT and botnets, its policies "do not clearly address some security risks relating to IoT devices."

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