US Congress’ role in IT security debated

A U.S. House of Representatives member proposed Thursday that the U.S. Congress require every computer to have antivirus software installed, but IT security experts disagreed with that suggestion and other ways for the government to encourage cybersecurity among private companies and individual users.

Representative Charles Bass, a New Hampshire Republican, questioned during a hearing if Congress should require antivirus software to be installed on every U.S. computer to counter the billions of dollars in damage done by viruses and worms in 2003 alone.

“Is it time for the federal government to develop some kind of Internet security agency that would develop standards for all legitimate software, require automatic update and patching and establish a base level for every single computer in the country?” Bass said during a hearing on computer viruses in the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee and Telecommunications and the Internet. “Is there any reason why any computer in this country shouldn’t have some kind of antivirus software on it as a requirement?”

No such reason exists, answered Art Wong, vice president of security response for antivirus software vendor Symantec Corp., prompting some laughs from the audience.

But other witnesses at the hearing expressed doubt over whether computer users would accept such a requirement. The outcry from computer users over their rights being trampled would be “shocking,” said Ken Silva, vice president of VeriSign Inc. “What you’re proposing is tantamount to trimming a little fat off the Constitution,” Silva told Bass. “Smart computer users would in fact update their software, but I’m just not sure that any kind of federal agency that required automatic updates on people’s computers for all of their software is something that the public would tolerate.”

Beyond a debate about the rights of computer users, an antivirus mandate could cause problems on computers not set up to run antivirus software, including ones used for factory automation or power or water treatment plants, said Bill Hancock, chief executive officer of the Internet Security Alliance. “The result is certain infrastructure would go ‘splat’ and not work at all,” he said of Bass’ antivirus and update suggestions.

The witnesses also disagreed on other ways to encourage cybersecurity. Software vendors should be pressed to write code that’s less buggy, said Richard Pethia, director of the CERT Coordination Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, but other witnesses representing software vendors downplayed that issue.

Trying to figure out how to build better software is “a no-win situation and just beating a dead horse,” VeriSign’s Silva said.

Silva and the Internet Security Alliance’s Hancock suggested that Congress promote cybersecurity education, with Silva recommending Congress shift some federal funding to grade and high school education for cybersecurity awareness.

But CERT’s Pethia said he doubted education efforts could reach enough computer users, saying instead software vendors need to be accountable. “The probability that we can drag 150 million users up that learning curve is relatively small,” he said.

Hancock and Robert Holleyman, president and chief executive officer of the Business Software Alliance, also called for Congress to commit more law enforcement resources to fighting cybercrime. “Law enforcement is typically hampered due to a lack of tools, a lack of investment and a lack of skill sets,” Hancock said.

Less than 10 virus or worm writers were arrested worldwide in 2002, while more than 200 viruses and worms were unleashed on the Internet, he noted.

The BSA’s Holleyman called for Congress to push for international agreements to enforce cybercrime laws and create a “culture of security” worldwide. U.S. laws alone will not solve cybersecurity problems, because some countries will continue to harbor hackers and spammers, Hancock added.

Even with international agreements with some countries, hackers and spammers will continue to find places to operate if U.S. laws drive them offshore, Hancock said. Responding to a question about how a federal antispam law would limit the spread of viruses and worms through e-mail, Hancock said Romania has one cybercrime investigator. “This guy is grossly overwhelmed,” Hancock said.

Representative Gene Green, a Texas Democrat, pushed his antispam legislation, the Anti-Spam Act of 2003, as a way to fight the spread of viruses and worms. “The combination of e-mail spam and viruses is like putting a SARS (Secure Acute Respiratory Syndrome) patient on every airline flight in the country,” Green said.

Asked what motivated virus and worm writers, Hancock said many of them were dysfunctional people with limited social skills, but he predicted that cybercrime will be increasingly motivated by criminals with political or terrorist motives. Currently, virus trackers can see activity jump between 4 p.m. PST Fridays and 9 p.m. PST Sundays, as “every kid without a date starts picking on the network,” Hancock added.

“I was hoping to start a site called and try to get them some dates and leave us alone,” Hancock said, prompting laughs from the audience.