Obama Announces, Signs, Executive Order for Cyberthreat Cooperation with Silicon Valley
President Obama addressed major Silicon Valley players at Stanford University on Friday afternoon, as part of an official White House summit on cybersecurity and cooperation between the technology industry and the government.
Taking the stage after Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke on its data security initiatives, President Obama spoke to an agreeable audience of technology experts gathered at Stanford University in California, "The place that made 'nerd' cool," according to Obama.
Obama praised Silicon Valley, reiterating the importance of the country investing in the digital economy and the technology industry as a whole, before speaking about his administration's new push to protect against hacking attacks like the recent infamous Sony Pictures hack.
He then introduced the concepts contained in a new executive order before ceremonially signing it on stage at the end of the speech.
Obama's Cybersecurity Information Sharing Initiative
"As consumers, we do more online than ever before," said Obama. "When companies get hacked, Americans' personal... and financial information" gets exposed. "One hundred million Americans had their data compromised," in the most recent series of attacks on financial, entertainment, and other industries' networks, he continued.
"Given the complexity of these threats, I believe we have to be guided by some basic principles." Obama laid out four basic points behind the cybersecurity information sharing initiative enacted by the executive order.
Firstly, "Government and industry should be working together, sharing appropriate information as true partners," he said. Secondly, Obama stated that because "it's not appropriate or even possible for government to secure the networks of private companies," separate sectors of Internet-connected industry should work together to share information on threats.
Thirdly, citing the "arms race" that's been conducted ever since the first computer viruses emerged in the 1980s, Obama said of both the private and public sectors, "We're going to have to constantly evolve."
Obama talked of government and Silicon Valley evolving nimble reactive strategies to deal with new innovations on the attacking side of the "cyber arms race." Later, he also mentioned developing new preventative technologies, such as those that use biometrics, to replace outdated systems like the username and password, since too many consumers use "passwords like 'password,' and '1,2,3,4,5...7," he said. "Those were some of my previous passwords," he added to much laughter in the tech-savvy crowd.
But his fourth and final point was likely greeted by more skepticism from the Silicon Valley audience. "Most importantly," announced Obama, "in all our work we have to make sure we're protecting the privacy and civil liberty of the American people."
In veiled reference to the last few years of public revelations on controversial National Security Agency digital surveillance practices, and his subsequent slight refashioning of some NSA procedures, Obama insisted that his administration has "pursued important reforms to make sure we're respecting peoples' privacy as well as our national security," something he said "the private sector grapples with" as well.
Obama's address at Stanford University occurred in tandem with the White House's announcement of the new executive order focusing on facilitating cybersecurity threat information sharing within Silicon Valley and between technology companies and the U.S. government.
According to The Washington Post, the executive order is voluntary and only advisory in nature, encouraging the creation of data sharing centers and the adoption of the government's cybersecurity framework -- created by executive order in 2013 and further developed last year and intended to help technology companies implement a standard for how to invest in, and implement, various cybersecurity measures.
Beyond that, the White House's emphasized the executive order included measures to protect consumer privacy rights. According to the White House's fact sheet on the new executive order, it "will include strong protections for privacy and civil liberties." Participating companies "will agree to abide by a common set of voluntary standards, which will include privacy protections, such as minimization," as part of their membership in the threat information sharing program.
Tensions Reflected In Attendance List
One notable aspect of President Obama's address at Stanford on Friday revolved not around whose speech preceded his, but who was noticeably absent in the audience.
At odds with the overall tone of cooperation and sharing, four of the top executives -- from three of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley -- declined an invitation from the White House to attend the Cybersecurity summit, as Bloomberg reported earlier in the week:
Facebook Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, and Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt all were invited but won't attend the public conference at Stanford University, according to the companies...
The technology industry had been a vital source of political support, campaign contributions and assistance in developing cutting-edge tech tactics for Obama when he won the presidency in 2008 and re-election in 2012. Relations have soured since, as the companies have clashed with the Obama administration over government spying and protecting the privacy rights of their users and customers.
Instead, the executives sent company security specialists in their place.
Google, Facebook, and Yahoo have all expressed disapproval over several National Security Agency initiatives, many of which have necessitated immediate, and costly, action by technology companies -- such as implementing end-to-end encryption to assure wary consumers that their communications and data are indeed as private and protected as Silicon Valley thought they were, before Edward Snowden.
To say relations between the technology industry and the government has "soured" may be a bit of an understatement. "What struck me is the enormous degree of hostility between Silicon Valley and the government," said technology industry and National Academy of Sciences veteran, and now Stanford's cybersecurity expert, Herb Lin to The New York Times. "The relationship has been poisoned, and it's not going to recover anytime soon."
Besides privacy advocates, major Silicon Valley companies are pushing for more reform than the primary steps Obama has announced on NSA collection. "The government is realizing they can't just blow into town and let bygones be bygones," said Google's vice president of security and privacy, Eric Grosse, in the Times' report. "Our business depends on trust. If you lose it, it takes years to regain."
"What a magnificent cathedral you've all helped to build," said Obama at the end of his speech; in well-researched and knowing reference to how one of the late founders of networked computer described the technology. "We want to be a part of that."
Now it's up to Silicon Valley to decide how inviting it will be in return.
Watch the full event video embedded below:
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