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Senators Want DHS to Thwart Federal Data Breaches

Collins and Warner speak just before their press conference. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Should the Department of Homeland Security be able to protect taxpayers' information on the IRS website without asking for permission?  

A bipartisan coalition of senators says yes, and they're pushing legislation that would give the Homeland Security secretary powers to detect intrusions on .gov domains and take steps similar to what the National Security Agency can do with the Pentagon.  

"The clear intent is that DHS would do risk assessments across the board, and one of the problems that we have now is there are certain agencies like FDA and IRS that have not allowed DHS access to their computer networks, and under our bill DHS would have that access and could issue binding directives if its risk assessment identifies problems," lead sponsor Susan Collins, R-Maine, told reporters. "I don't expect this is going to happen overnight, but I do expect that there would be an assessment ... across the board."  

Collins led a news conference to roll out the bill Wednesday, which boasts the support of a bipartisan group of six senators. The bill comes partly in response to the recent massive data breach involving federal records at the Office of Personnel Management.  

"What the OPM hack showed is that this threat goes well beyond the private sector and goes into the public sector as well. The scope of this breach, which invaded a series of government databases [and] stole information on more than 22 million Americans, was really unprecedented," Sen. Mark Warner said. "In the wake of the OPM breach, I think we can all agree that more needs to be done to strengthen cybersecurity and coordinate our efforts. If we can't get it economy-wide, at least, at least for the federal government."  

Collins said it was her understanding that the bigger cybersecurity information-sharing measure that originated out of the Intelligence panel was still in line for floor debate as early as before the August recess. The Senate schedule still calls for the chamber to be in session through the first week of August, a week longer than the House. Collins said the new legislation could be a floor amendment to that bill.  

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., like Collins and Warner a member of the Intelligence Committee, said he was confident DHS had developed the capability needed to take the lead role with respect to civilian federal agencies.  

"While we would like to be standing here and saying that the larger cybersecurity issue, working with both the economy, the private sector and the public sector is on the way, and it is — we will be dealing with it shortly, the very least we can do is expedite and move quickly relative to the federal government and the .gov."  

New Hampshire GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte also spoke with reporters about the bill Wednesday, and Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland have also signed on.  

"When you have Barbara Mikulski on your side, that's a powerful ally as well," Collins said of the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. Collins is also an appropriator, meaning it is possible that process is used to advance the legislation.

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