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Congress to Silicon Valley: Don't expect any help from us

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It was billed as a “Cybersecurity Summit,” but it was actually a convenient platform for exasperated lawmakers to vent their frustrations at being part of a hopelessly gridlocked Congress. And make no mistake about it, they are really frustrated.

At a gathering yesterday of political and corporate leaders in Palo Alto, California hosted by Hewlett-Packard and organized by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, two U.S. Senators and two members of the House left little doubt that the chances of action on bills to address cybersecurity, or anything else for that matter, were just about zero. “We’re not doing a whole lot in this Congress right now,” admitted Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia).

Chambliss spoke as part of a general discussion about an executive order signed by President Obama last year to improve critical cybersecurity. The government issued a framework in February designed to foster closer partnership between the public and private sectors when dealing with cyber threats. “We’ve got to develop an atmosphere where the private sector wants to participate,” said Chambliss.

But the order merely provides a framework and some guidelines for how companies and the government could work together. Actual legislation sponsored by the Senator from Georgia is stuck in the legislative morass on the Senate floor and Chambliss was not optimistic about the prospects for passage. “We do have a difficult time getting our members engaged on this issue,” said Chambliss.

One of his colleagues who is engaged is the powerful Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). As the ranking minority member of the Senate Finance Committee, Hatch has been active on privacy concerns. He introduced a bill last month that would withhold federal funds from schools that release student records for advertising or marketing purposes.

In his brief remarks yesterday, Hatch was particularly critical of the gridlock in Washington. “I’ve been there 38 years and I’ve never seen it worse than this,” said Hatch.

The Utah senator chose the gathering at Hewlett-Packard yesterday to level some of his strongest remarks at the Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) in particular. “What they’re doing to this country is beyond belief,” said Hatch. “It is really pathetic.”

He referenced the passage of over 350 bills in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives as evidence that Congress was capable of action, if they could only break through the logjam in the Senate. “Those bills are sitting on Harry Reid’s desk,” said Hatch, who also said it was “unclear” if the Senate would act before adjournment and called it “a disgrace.”

Behind the rhetoric from Hatch and his colleagues were a couple of messages that could hinder action in Washington even if the gridlock could be broken. The first is recognition that, in the wake of NSA’s wholesale gathering of online data, technology companies are wary about trusting the government with any security threat information they provide.

One elected official in attendance – Congressman Eric Swalwell (D- California) – admitted that trust remains a problem. “We really have to address the trust and privacy issue,” said Swalwell.

The other potential roadblock is that when elected officials venture away from Silicon Valley, cybersecurity is not exactly at the top of their constituents’ minds. Issues such as the war in Iraq, healthcare, and the overall national economy seem to be more pressing for voters. Chambliss admitted that when he talks about cybersecurity “peoples’ eyes glaze over,” and Congressman Pat Meehan (R-Pennsylvania) described how “the average person out there is oblivious to what’s going on.”

These are not the kinds of messages that tech leaders want to hear, but the elected officials at Hewlett-Packard yesterday were blunt in their collective assessment of a tough situation. “Technology is rapidly changing yet our cyberlaws are lagging far behind,” said Hatch. And, the Senator could have added, nothing about that problem is going to change anytime soon.

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