Obama orders review of cyber security

Barack Obama has ordered a review of America's cyber defence strategy, opening the possibility of a wholesale change to the country's approach to online security.

At the moment, a wide spread of agencies are involved in protecting the US from attack over the internet, including the Department of Homeland Security, National Security Council and the various branches of the military. That situation could be simplified, according to the results of the 60-day review announced by the White House yesterday.

"The national security and economic health of the United States depend on the security, stability, and integrity of our nation's cyberspace, both in the public and private sectors," said John Brennan, Obama's assistant for counterterrorism and homeland security, in a statement.

"The president is confident that we can protect our nation's critical cyber infrastructure while at the same time adhering to the rule of law and safeguarding privacy rights and civil liberties."

The review will be overseen by Melissa Hathaway, a former consultant who was a high-ranking cyber security adviser to the Bush administration. She will temporarily take on the role of senior director of cyberspace until the completion of her work in April.

The appraisal intends to measure precisely what online security measures are being taken, as well as point towards possible changes. It could eventually mean the White House is more involved in cyber security decisions - as well as bringing more power to national security adviser General Jim Jones.

Online security is a growing concern for governments around the world, particularly as critical infrastructures such as communications, finance and transport become more reliant on the internet to work. According to former director of national intelligence Mike McConnell, the potential for chaos caused by an online attack on the US is enormous.

"If you get in our systems and you're trying to destroy banking records or electric power distribution or transportation, it could have a debilitating effect on the country," he told reporters recently.

Last year, the US was involved in setting up a Nato cyberdefence centre in Estonia - itself targeted by online attackers in 2007 - while more recently there have been online skirmishes in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

On Sunday, vice president Joe Biden told Nato security officials that the threat of internet attack was among the White House's chief defence concerns. "Our alliance must be better equipped to help stop the spread of the world's most dangerous weapon, to tackle terrorism and cyber security, to expand the writ of energy security," he said.

Although any report is likely to suggest increasing the level of partnerships with private companies to help the government, the Hathaway report could also prove something of a boondoggle for the technology industry. Some industry analysts suggesting that contracts to work on US cyber security could run in excess of $10bn by the end of Obama's term in the White House.

Some questions about Obama's commitment to hi-tech reform remain unanswered. During his presidential campaign, Obama regularly referred to his plans to improve cyber security and the relationship with the technology industry in general. Despite stating that he intended to appoint the country's first chief technology officer, however, he has yet to name a choice for the role.

The job, which would give an individual the responsibility of pulling together government technology and encouraging technological competitiveness, remains unfilled more than three months after the election - the last senior administration post to remain open.

Recent speculation has focused on Vivek Kundra, the chief technology officer of Washington, DC - but a report this week suggested he could instead be preparing to join the Office of Management and Budget.

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