University Launches Cybersecurity Initiative

Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff will lead the interdisciplinary effort.

Michael Chertoff, chair of the initiative, emphasized the importance of public-private partnerships in addressing cybersecurity in GW's Jack Morton Auditorium last week.
December 17, 2012

By Kurtis Hiatt

The threat of a cyber attack is virtually omnipresent.

“It involves, in a sense, conflict and struggle that is in the networks in all of our homes and all of our businesses—and spans public and private activity,” former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said Friday. “So all of us are enlisted, whether we like it or not, in the effort on cybersecurity. It’s not something that we can simply expect other people to do.”

Secretary Chertoff’s remarks last week in the Jack Morton Auditorium at the George Washington University headlined the university’s announcement of its new Cybersecurity Initiative, an effort that will provide research-based solutions and host in-depth discussions on cybersecurity challenges. Secretary Chertoff serves as chair of the initiative.

The need to address cybersecurity is clear—threats in this arena are not going away. In fact, the “major and challenging issue” continues to intensify, Secretary Chertoff said. Every day, the country faces an attack or threat of attack.

“And perhaps more than any other security challenge, to get this right we have to have a public-private partnership, and we also have to have the ability to achieve unity of effort across all of the elements of national government.”

That’s where GW comes in.

With its location in the heart of the nation’s capital and at the “epicenter of cybersecurity policymaking,” George Washington President Steven Knapp said the university is the ideal institution to convene critical players in cybersecurity, from faculty to policymakers and other experts in fields like business, law, international affairs and engineering. The initiative also includes research institutes and centers, graduate education programs and scholarship programs across campus.

“This integrated, multidisciplinary approach will enable us to address the wide range of issues that are relevant to the cyber challenge, including national and international security, economic competitiveness, as well as concerns about privacy and civil liberties,” Dr. Knapp said.

Reducing the risk of a cyber attack—completely eliminating the risk isn’t possible—has challenges, Secretary Chertoff said.

One of the biggest is making cybersecurity a priority for private sector CEOs and board members, who are responsible for an enormous amount of the network activity in the country. For too long cybersecurity has been thought of as “geek stuff”—something for the technical and security personnel to handle, Secretary Chertoff said. Although technical experts play a role, informing the community that those experts are not the only players in the game is an important lesson GW’s initiative can teach, he added.

As for government’s role, Congress needs to help facilitate information sharing between the public and private sectors and promote cybersecurity as a return on investment, rather than a cost, for businesses, Secretary Chertoff said. And the White House can help promote a “unity of effort” by having a single point of contact with which the private sector can interact. A publicly declared position on how the U.S. treats cyber attacks is also critical, he said.

Friday’s announcement also included a panel discussion on cybersecurity. Participants included Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence; Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, incoming chair of the House Homeland Security Committee; GW Trustee J. Richard Knop; Howard Schmidt, former White House cybersecurity coordinator; Mortimer Zuckerman, chair and editor-in-chief of U.S. News and World Report and publisher of the New York Daily News; Michael Papay, vice president and chief information security officer at Northrop Grumman; and Kshemendra Paul, program manager at Information Sharing Environment. Frank Cilluffo, director of GW’s Homeland Security Policy Institute, moderated the discussion.

Panelists agreed that the issue of cybersecurity demands bipartisan support. It’s something Rep. Rogers said keeps him up at night. Whether the target is theft of intellectual property, espionage or what amounts to cyber warfare, it’s a “problem we need to fix,” Rep. McCaul said.

“Every day we fail to act we put more Americans’ lives at risk,” he added.

The panelists also touched on the importance of sharing information and acting on it, how to raise awareness among the broader public of the seriousness of the problem, state and local agencies’ involvement, understanding the role of both offense and defense and identifying the country’s biggest vulnerabilities, among other topics.

Helping to find solutions to these problems, GW can “uniquely play a key catalytic role discussing these issues in a neutral academic forum,” said Mr. Knop, who chairs the initiative’s external advisory council. The initiative’s internal advisory council is made up of university deans and is co-chaired by Leo Chalupa, vice president for research, and Provost Steven Lerman. Dr. Knapp also thanked Bob Rose, executive vice president at Thomson Reuters, for his crucial role in helping launch the initiative.

“This is the launch of a very important and exciting campus-wide initiative that brings together the many areas of strength GW has in cyber, including policy, research and education,” Dr. Chalupa said.

Full video of last week’s event is available here.

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