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Exceptions to Obama’s cyber order questioned

Eric Engleman

WASHINGTON – Telecommunications companies want President Obama’s administration to rethink a decision that may exempt Google’s Gmail, Apple’s iPhone software and Microsoft’s Windows from an executive order on cybersecurity.

Obama’s Feb. 12 order says the government can’t designate “commercial information technology products or consumer information technology services” as critical U.S. infrastructure targeted for voluntary computer security standards.

“If email went away this afternoon, we would all come to a stop,” said Marcus Sachs, vice president of national security policy at Verizon Communications, the second-largest U.S. phone company. “Hell yeah, email is critical.”

Technologies used in personal computers, software and the Internet “are the lifeblood of cyberspace,” Sachs said.

“If you exclude that right up front, you take off the table the very people who are creating the products and services that are vulnerable,” Sachs added.

Obama’s order is aimed at areas such as power grids, telecommunications and pipelines. The goal is to protect “systems and assets whose incapacitation from a cyber incident would have catastrophic national security and economic consequences,” White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in an email. “It is not about Netflix, Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat.”

Under the President’s executive order, the Department of Homeland Security is to identify critical infrastructure, translating the order’s broadly worded information technology exclusions into specific guidelines.

The order expands a government program for sharing classified information about computer threats with defense contractors and Internet-service providers and calls for computer security standards for companies in critical industries. While adherence to the standards is to be voluntary, the executive order tells federal agencies that directly regulate affected industries to consider binding rules.

Telecommunications and cable companies don’t want to face regulatory burdens and costs that aren’t shared by technology companies, David Kaut, a Washington-based analyst with Stifel Nicolaus & Co., said in an interview.

“The telecom community is concerned the tech industry is going to get a free pass here,” Kaut said. “You have an ecosystem and only the network guys are going to get submitted to government scrutiny.”

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