A Consumer Product Safety Commission for cyber?

A former Obama administration cybersecurity official wants a single agency to take the lead on generating and enforcing security standards for technology products.

 

Something is wrong with our nation's approach to cybersecurity. We can't seem to stop the bad news. Major breaches like those at Target, the Office of Personnel Management, Yahoo and Equifax have lulled the American public into a state somewhere between complacency and helplessness.

As a nation, we have tried to address our cybersecurity challenges through workforce development programs, cyber insurance, information sharing, and regulatory compliance mandates -- just to name a few.

As we continue to pursue these remedies with debatable success, the conventional wisdom is that technology consumers, both individuals and corporations, are responsible for cybersecurity blunders. We've all heard the common refrains: "You should have patched your systems." "You should not have clicked that link." "You should have updated your password."

Are we failing to answer the cybersecurity call because of irresponsible consumers? Or is the technology we use failing consumers?

Consider a few examples. Last year, Johnson & Johnson warned diabetic patients that their insulin pumps were vulnerable to hackers due to security design issues. Just this past January, the Food and Drug Administration similarly warned that hackers could interfere with St. Jude Medical's Implantable Cardiac Device allowing them to rapidly drain batteries and deliver deadly shocks to patients. Further, a recent Veracode Report suggests that 61 percent of all internally developed applications failed basic compliance tests when measured against the Open Web Application Security Project Top 10 list. Commercially developed software rated even less secure, failing compliance checks 75 percent of the time.

So, what's happening? In our haste to innovate, we've exacerbated a crisis of quality. The technology on which we rely is being rushed to market without the security protocols needed to protect our information. Most companies, with finite resources to build, secure, and test products, make tradeoffs to produce the most marketable products as quickly as possible. Worries about security and quality upgrades come only after their revenue position allows it. This approach will not change without intervention by outside forces.

We need a governance system -- to include enforcement, incentives and penalties -- to ensure effective implementation of stronger security design practices.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission oversees a governance system very similar to this idea. The CPSC is responsible for protecting consumers and families from products that pose a fire, electrical, chemical, or mechanical hazard. They execute this mission through legislatively mandated consumer product safety regulations and an accreditation and certification process that uses outside laboratories to test products for compliance with standards.

Does a similar body exist to oversee the information security for all consumer technology products? Outside of the FDA's certification and accreditation program for medical devices, the answer is no.

This is problematic, because market forces alone will not solve our crisis of quality. Companies have little incentive to spend precious resources on information security prior to product launch, and the average consumer is not tech-savvy enough to question how a technology product makes their digital communications more or less safe.

What I propose is that a new or existing federal agency be charged with governing, incentivizing and enforcing security design standards for technology products. Existing agencies that could play this role include the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Federal Trade Commission or the Consumer Products Safety Commission, but expanding the authority of an existing agency can be difficult due to skill set and cultural barriers. An entirely new organization would be preferable.

Regardless, the proposed organization -- call it the Consumer Technology Security Commission -- would be responsible for:

  • Coordinating the development of security design standards and partnering with Congress to mandate relevant standards;
  • Building an accreditation and certification program; and
  • Enforcing quality through regular testing by third-party assessors and conducting recalls, when appropriate.

It is important to note that this proposal is not simply more regulation; it could be a boon for industry. The accreditation and certification program could scale the review and testing of technology products, and ensure that only security-aware technology makes it to consumers, thereby reducing the chance of cyberattacks in the first place.

Tax subsidies and labor market incentives could serve as sweeteners for early adoption and participation by manufacturers, making this proposal more palatable to industry. It could also encourage small and medium-size businesses to meet the certification demand, thereby increasing market capacity.

In our fractious political system, this is an opportunity to come together around a common-sense solution that could truly address our cybersecurity woes.

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