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Obama Calls For Better Response To Cybersecurity Threats


President Obama is calling on the government and private industry to work together to take on threats to cybersecurity. He was the headliner at a summit about the issue today at Stanford University.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The very technologies that empower us to do great good can also be used to undermine us and inflict great harm.

MARTIN: CEOs from some of the largest U.S. companies were there, so was NPR tech reporter Aarti Shahani. Hi, Aarti.


MARTIN: So the news out of this today is that the President issued another executive order. It's supposed to get private companies and the government sharing more information with each other. How is this going to work in practice?

SHAHANI: Yeah, the president gave this really spirited yes-we-can to kick off his speech. And it's kind of strange because cybersecurity used to be a back-burner issue. But after all the hacks - Target, Sony, now Anthem - it's a challenge of the day, and our economy depends on it. The president's executive order is supposed to break down silos.

Right now, more or less, a company gets attacked, maybe they know, and if they do, maybe they tell others in their sector, like a bank tells other banks, health care tells health care, but that's where it stops. Under the order, Homeland Security would fund the creation of a new entity that would create voluntary standards - and it is voluntary - for companies to talk across industries and with the government and share attack information proactively. The White House is emphasizing that information sharing does not just mean, hey, companies, tell us what you know. It's supposed to be a two-way street, presumably with agencies like the NSA telling the private sector what security threats they're seeing.

MARTIN: So, you know, a year or so ago, we were hearing about the NSA surveillance and asking whether the government knows too much about us. So now the government is saying that more information sharing between the government and the private sector is in our mutual best interest. Aren't there some real privacy concerns here, though?

SHAHANI: Oh, yeah. There are clear privacy concerns. I mean, one critic has said that this could be a Patriot Act two, as an illegal architecture that makes it easier to target individuals. Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, struck this very passionate tone talking about privacy on stage right before the president. But still, behind the scenes, the tech companies are fighting with the administration about consumer data. The CEOs of Facebook, Google and Yahoo did not attend the summit. And of course companies are concerned about their reputations and blowback to their businesses after the NSA revelations about information sharing. Though there is one other perspective I want to highlight. Some business leaders I spoke to, they're hoping President Obama's order signals that the government shares more information with them. Cybercriminals use the same lines of malicious code, the same types of attacks against different sectors. Often law enforcement agencies, they know it, they see it, but the criticism goes, they don't warn potential victims.

MARTIN: The president wasn't alone. There were all these business leaders - the heads of Visa, MasterCard, Apple. Why such a big lineup?

SHAHANI: They're trying to orchestrate a culture change. The summit's like a big coming-out ceremony. The opening plenary had American Express sitting by Pacific Gas and Electric, along with Kaiser Permanente, the hospital network - all talking about how hard it is and with plenty of companies making public commitments to improve cybersecurity.

MARTIN: NPR's Aarti Shahani, talking to us from Stanford University. Thanks so much.

SHAHANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.