Resilient Networks Only Aim of Obama Order?Keeping Communications Links Open in a National Emergency
An online civil liberties group contends an executive order signed by President Obama late last week grants the Department of Homeland Security powers to seize privately run communications and information networks in a national emergency.
The White House characterizes the new executive order - Assignment of National Security and Emergency Preparedness Communications Functions - as an update of an existing executive order signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 that predates the information revolution, Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and director of national intelligence.
"Today's executive order updates our structure to reflect a world in which mobile phones, the Internet and social media are all now integral to the communications landscape," according to a White House fact sheet explaining the new order, which was issued, virtually unnoticed, on July 6.
The administration contends the order would ensure the continuity of government communications during a national emergency.
But to do so, the executive order gives DHS the ability to collect certain public communications, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an online privacy rights group. "Under the executive order," the posting on the EPIC website says, "the White House has also granted the department the authority to seize private facilities when necessary, effectively shutting down or limiting civilian communications."
Provisions in cybersecurity legislation before Congress last year, which did not pass, included similar provisions to allow the government to disconnect communications traffic in times of national security. "Following public protest, Congress abandoned the proposal," the EPIC statement says.
An administration spokeswoman took exception to the characterization that the president intends to grab control of the Internet.
"The Internet is an international network of networks; no one person, organization or country can control or shut down the Internet," spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden says. "The United States relies on the Internet to perform essential functions including to operate critical infrastructure and to maintain essential national security capabilities. That is why the president has designated our digital infrastructure as a strategic national asset. This order is about communications resilience - the administration's goal is to maintain this connected environment during the worst disasters, even in circumstances when our adversaries may wish to deprive us of their use."
Making the Process Work Better
Other experts provided more benign interpretations of the executive order than did EPIC.
"I think they hoped to make this process work better," says James Lewis, director for technology and public policy at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, a think tank. "The intent was to try to add some clarity of the different agencies involved. It's best to see this as the outcome of negotiations between everyone who thought they should have a role rather than implementing some strategic vision for communications."
The executive order creates an executive committee for national security and emergency preparedness composed of the heads of eight federal agencies and co-chaired by the secretaries of defense and homeland security. Other agencies serving on the committee include the departments of Commerce, Justice and State; the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the General Services Administration and the Federal Communications Commission.
The committee's responsibilities include making policy recommendations to the president to enhance the survivability, resilience and future architecture of national security-emergency preparedness communications.
"By combining national security and emergency preparedness, that might mean both better design and fewer specific design goals and bureaucratic layers, if the committee is successful and agencies have the resources to implement their recommendations," says Allan Friedman, research director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institute, a think tank.
The executive order jibes with other administration efforts to assure the confidentiality and integrity of information systems in order to build better defenses. "This order pushes availability to the fray," Friedman says. "The flow of information, particularly command and control information and effective management, is one of the first things studied after a crisis. It particularly emphasizes resiliency, a value that is hard to define systematically but implicitly recognizes that perfect availability will not be possible in many circumstances."
Still, he says, the Department of Defense has identified the challenges of interoperability, security, mobility and redundancy, and has begun to explore the optimal combination of these and other design priorities. And, the order explicitly instructs DHS receives to report back on its own current communications functions.
But don't expect quick action by the committee. "Nothing will be done immediately," Friedman says. "Resiliency and survivability are notoriously hard to convert into straightforward metrics."