The Senate’s SOPA Counterattack?: Cybersecurity the Undoing of Privacy

The Daily Caller reports that Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) is planning another effort at Internet regulation—right on the heels of the SOPA/PIPA debacle. The article seems calculated to insinuate that a follow-on to SOPA/PIPA might slip into cybersecurity legislation the Senate plans to take up. Whether that’s in the works or not, I’ll detail here the privacy threats in cybersecurity language being circulated on the Hill.

A Senate draft currently making the rounds is called the “Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act of 2012.” It sets up “cybersecurity exchanges” at which government and corporate entities would share threat information and solutions.

Sharing of information does not require federal approval or planning, of course. Information sharing happens all the time according to market processes. But “information sharing” is the solution Congress has seized upon, so federal information sharing programs we will have. Think of all this as a “see something, say something” campaign for corporate computer security people. Or perhaps “e-fusion centers.”

Reading over the draft, I was struck by sweeping language purporting to create “affirmative authority to monitor and defend against cybersecurity threats.” To understand the strangeness of these words, we must start at the beginning:

We live in a free country where all that is not forbidden is allowed. There is no need in such a country for “affirmative” authority to act. So what does this section do as it in purports to permit private and governmental entities to monitor their information systems, operate active defenses, and such? It sweeps aside nearly all other laws controlling them.

“Consistent with the Constitution of the United States and notwithstanding and other provision of law,” it says (emphasis added), entities may act to preserve the security of their systems. This means that the only law controlling their actions would be the Constitution.

It’s nice that the Constitution would apply</sarcasm>, but the obligations in the Privacy Act of 1974 would not. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act would be void. Even the requirements of the E-Government Act of 2002, such as privacy impact assessments, would be swept aside.

The Constitution doesn’t constrain private actors, of course. This language would immunize them from liability under any and all regulation and under state or common law. Private actors would not be subject to suit for breaching contractual promises of confidentiality. They would not be liable for violating the privacy torts. Anything goes so long as one can make a claim to defending “information systems,” a term that refers to anything having to do with computers.

Elsewhere, the bill creates an equally sweeping immunity against law-breaking so long as the law-breaking provides information to a “cybersecurity exchange.” This is a breath-taking exemption from the civil and criminal laws that protect privacy, among other things.

(1) IN GENERAL.—No civil or criminal cause of action shall lie or be maintained in any Federal or State court against any non-Federal governmental or private entity, or any officer, employee, or agent of such an entity, and any such action shall be dismissed promptly, for the disclosure of a cybersecurity threat indicator to—
(A) a cybersecurity exchange under subsection (a)(1); or
(B) a private entity under subsection, (b)(1), provided the cybersecurity threat indicator is promptly shared with a cybersecurity exchange.

In addition to this immunity from suit, the bill creates an equally sweeping “good faith” defense:

Where a civil or criminal cause of action is not barred under paragraph (1), a good faith reliance by any person on a legislative authorization, a statutory authorization, or a good faith determination that this Act permitted the conduct complained of, is a complete defense against any civil or criminal action brought under this Act or any other law.

Good faith is a question of fact, and a corporate security official could argue successfully that she acted in good faith if a government official told her to turn over private data. This language allows the corporate sector to abandon its responsibility to follow the law in favor of following government edicts. We’ve seen attacks on the rule of law like this before.

A House Homeland Security subcommittee marked up a counterpart to this bill last week. It does not have similar language that I could find.

In 2009, I testified in the House Science Committee on cybersecurity, skeptical of the government’s ability to tackle cybersecurity but cognizant that the government must secure its own systems. “Cybersecurity exchanges” are a blind stab at addressing the many challenges in securing computers, networks, and data, and I think they are unnecessary at best. According to current plans, cybersecurity exchanges come at a devastating cost to our online privacy.

Congress seems poised once again to violate the rule from the SOPA/PIPA disaster: “First, do no harm to the Internet.”