President Obama unveils cybersecurity push in tech industry’s backyard

February 13, 2015, 9:08 PM UTC
Obama speaks at the Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection in Palo Alto, California
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection at Stanford University in Palo Alta, California February 13, 2015. The aim of the summit is to build support for beefing up cyber security laws in the wake of massive hacked at Target, Sony and Anthem. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR4PIK7
Photograph by Kevin Lamarque — Reuters

It may be Friday the 13th, but the White House is hoping a summit on cybersecurity and consumer protection will bring a bit of much-needed luck to the gloomy cyberthreat landscape.

The summit kicked off Friday morning at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. and featured a who’s who of leaders from both public and private sectors: the secretaries of Homeland Security and Department of Commerce and the CEOs of Apple, American Express, Kaiser Permanente, AIG and Pacific Gas & Electric, to name a few.

President Barack Obama himself made an appearance, highlighting the need for shared, basic principles in efforts to prevent and combat the increasing number of cyberthreats.

“Government cannot do this alone,” the President told the audience. “The fact is that the private sector can’t do this alone either. It’s government that often has the latest information on these new threats.”

President Obama also used the opportunity to sign a new executive order that encourages U.S. companies to partner both with each other and with government agencies. The order lays out a framework for “expanded information sharing designed to help companies work together, and work with the federal government, to quickly identify and protect against cyber threats.” Already, security vendors like Palo Alto Networks, Fortinet and Symantec have banded together to form the Cyber Threat Alliance to share threat intelligence.

But in order to make bolder moves—like modernizing the way in which companies alert customers of a breach—the President has been pushing Congress to pass a more comprehensive cybersecurity bill.

“This should not be an ideological issue,” President Obama told the audience at Stanford University. “This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. Everybody’s online and everybody’s vulnerable.”

Indeed, the White House’s cybersecurity summit comes on the heels of several high-profile corporate breaches, including at Sony Pictures, Anthem health insurance, Target and Home Depot. Reports of cyberattacks have increased five-fold since 2009, and President Obama has made cybersecurity a priority in 2015 (though his efforts have been criticized on focusing too much on what happens after an attack has taken place). To that end, earlier this week his administration announced a new cybersecurity agency called the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center, which will be tasked with analyzing and quickly sharing intelligence information.

The White House purposely chose to hold the summit in the heart of Silicon Valley, where much of the innovation in next-generation cybersecurity tools is taking place. While the CEOs of Valley heavyweights like Google and Facebook did not show up for the event, Apple CEO Tim Cook (AAPL) took the stage to make an impassioned plea for privacy and human rights (and to plug the company’s mobile payment system, Apple Pay) and many other notable business leaders across finance, healthcare and other industries also spoke about the need to work together and change regulations in order to better combat cyberattacks.

Despite the gloomy subject, President Obama managed to work the audience and appeal to Silicon Valley–and Stanford University’s–culture of innovation and, well, nerdiness. In addition to giving shout-outs to members of his administration who are Stanford alumni (like U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker), he also praised the region’s weather, entrepreneurial spirit and technological prowess.

“This is the place that made ‘nerd’ cool,” President Obama said.

Of course, the summit and the executive order will only go so far in preventing and combating cyberthreats. But one thing is clear: The need to do so is increasingly top of mind, both in Silicon Valley and in Washington D.C.

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