Attacks on the Internet are a growing threat, and Congress needs to protect companies from being sued for providing information to the government when they’ve been targeted, security officials told a Senate panel.
The Internet is “where the bad guys will go because that’s where our lives are, and our money, our secrets and our intellectual property,” FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Homeland Security Committee in Washington. Whether carried out by terrorists, criminals or foreign governments, attacks on computers are one of the most serious threats to the U.S., he said.
“There are no safe neighborhoods,” said Comey, who took office on Sept. 4. “All of us are next-door neighbors on the Internet in the blink of an eye.”
Congress must shield companies against lawsuits for giving information to government investigators when they have been hit by a cyber-attack, Comey and Rand Beers, acting secretary of homeland security, told the committee.
Companies are concerned about being sued by competitors or by people whose information is being turned over, Comey said. They also want to ensure that information they provide won’t be used against them in government contract competitions, he said.
Companies need such protection to encourage them to provide information on cyber-attacks as soon as they happen, Beers said.
Comey, Beers and Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the panel the risk of a major terrorist attack in the U.S. is lower than before 2001 because groups that pose a threat are more dispersed and more likely to attack overseas.
While President Barack Obama has repeatedly said the core of al-Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas has been “decimated,” U.S. intelligence officials will monitor the Afghan-Pakistan border region after U.S. combat forces leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, Olsen said.
The U.S. is concerned about the area “because of the presence of extremist groups including the remnants of core al-Qaeda in that region,” Olsen said. He also said there has been an “uptick” in violence in Iraq in the last several months, almost all of it focused on Iraqi targets.
Still, Olsen said much of the terrorism threat has moved from that region to areas in North Africa and the Mideast.
“In some ways it has become more significant from a geographic perspective and more complicated from an intelligence perspective,” Olsen said. “I would not say that the threat to the United States of a 9/11 style of attack is greater. In fact, I would say it is lower today than it was in 2001.”
The bombings at the Boston Marathon in April show the danger that can be posed by people who aren’t directly connected to terrorist organizations, Olsen said.
Comey said he agreed that the risk of a “spectacular” attack is lower and has been replaced by a dispersed “hydra-head” threat that is less able to hit the U.S.
Beers said that “makes it a bigger challenge in terms of knowing what and where things might happen, but the ‘where’ is more likely now to be overseas than it is to be in the homeland, which isn’t to say that we should drop our guard in any way.”