Obama seeks help from Congress, Silicon Valley to fight cyberattacks

President Obama speaks at the White House Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection at Stanford University in Palo Alto.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

President Obama called on lawmakers Friday to pass tougher cybersecurity laws, but the main pitch of his speech at a cybersecurity summit at Stanford University was aimed at business leaders whose help he needs fighting cyberattacks.

As he prepared to sign an executive order to promote information-sharing within the private sector and with the government, Obama praised the “spirit of collaboration” he maintains would help all sides respond quickly to an attack.

When companies get hacked, Obama argued, the personal and financial information of American individuals and business interests is compromised, a threat to all involved.

“This has to be a shared mission,” Obama said. Because computer networks are held largely by the private sector, “government can’t do this alone,” he said.

“But the private sector can’t do it alone,” he said shortly before signing the executive order.


Obama recently sent a new set of cybersecurity proposals to Congress, and key White House advisors say they are optimistic they can get bipartisan support for them.

Still, the president has made it clear that, after years of butting heads with congressional leaders, he’s not going to hold off on the use of his unilateral powers while they try to work something out with them.

On few subjects is it more important to plow ahead, say top advisors. Cybersecurity is a major, immediate concern for the White House as hackers and other nations find increasingly sophisticated ways to disrupt business and steal personal information for financial gain.

Obama is under great pressure to take action after attacks in recent months against high-profile American companies including Sony Pictures, Home Depot and Anthem.

Republicans, though, are unimpressed with his executive orders and think Obama should focus his energy on working with GOP leaders to enact laws that would require, rather than merely encourage, the kind of information-sharing Obama is talking about.

“Unilateral, top-down solutions will not solve America’s cyber problems,” Cory Fritz, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said Friday.

Because of the growing risk of cyberintrusions from overseas, Obama has to take action, with or without Congress, said Darrell West, director of the Center for Tech Innovation at the Brookings Institution.

“It has been hard for Congress to pass cybersecurity due to partisanship and differing views between the parties about the role of government. That is not likely to change soon,” said West.

“Given congressional inaction, Obama’s executive order is the best way to address cybersecurity. It will help keep things safe and reduce threats from abroad,” he said.

Obama poked fun at his own personal commitment to cybersecurity in the past. He eventually learned that “password” and “12345 … 7” are not good passwords, he said, and changed them.

But safeguarding privacy is no laughing matter, he said. Government has to fight the threats without overstepping its bounds into the affairs of private business or private citizens.

“This cyberworld is the wild, wild West,” he said. “And to some degree we’re asked to be sheriff. When something like [the recent hack of] Sony happens, people want to know, ‘What can government do about this?’ ... We have to have an open debate about it.”

For more White House coverage, follow @cparsons