The United States Senate's governmental affairs committee has unanimously approved legislation designed to bolster the nation's critical infrastructure.
The recently approved federal legislation also focuses on establishing a safe conduit through which vital information from the private sector can be shared with the government.
"We can't guard against threats and vulnerabilities if we don't know where they exist," pointed out Sen. Robert Bennett. "Since 90 percent of this information is in private hands and not publicly available, we need a reliable means through which it can be safely shared with and correctly analyzed by the government."
According to Bennett, the bill allows the private sector to share information with the government without fear of it falling into the hands of competitors or terrorists. The legislation also preserves public access to data through Freedom of Information Act procedures.
"We strike an appropriate balance," added the Utah senator.
The amendment to the National Homeland Security and Combating Terrorism Act of 2002 is designed to encourage voluntary sharing of information relating to critical infrastructure by the private sector with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The process is accomplished without diminishing existing rights of public access under the Freedom of Information Act.
Bennett was joined in authoring the amendment by Sen. Cad Levin of Michigan. The officials are members of the governmental affairs committee. Sen. Ted Stevens of Arkansas cosponsored the measure.
"Our nation is under constant attack," emphasized Bennett. "It's only a matter of time before those who wish this country ill will shift their focus away from attacking our computers in the federal arena and start attacking our private infrastructure. To prepare for and withstand these attacks, a strong private/public partnership is essential and information sharing is the key to its success."
The recently endorsed legislation protects from public disclosure, through the existing framework of an FOIA exemption, critical infrastructure information submitted voluntarily to the department of homeland security. Records that an agency obtains independently of the DHS are not subject to protections in the bill.
If records are currently submitted to agencies and subject to disclosure by that agency under FOIA, they will remain available under the act even if a private company also submits the same information to homeland security agency.
To be covered under the bill, information must be related to critical infrastructure vulnerabilities or threats, not customarily made available to the public and submitted to the department of homeland security in a proper manner determined by the federal agency. DHS must develop procedures for the receipt, protection and maintenance of the submitted records.
Bennett's amendment is similar to provisions from a broader information sharing bill he introduced last year.
Following the committee's completion of the entire Homeland Security bill, it will go to the full Senate for consideration. The House of Representatives has passed a similar bill.