Obama at Stanford: Industry, government must cooperate on cybersecurity

"Grappling with how the government protects the American people from adverse events while making sure the government itself is not abusing its capabilities is hard," President Obama said.

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President Obama speaking in Stanford’s Memorial Auditorium.

Corporate leaders and government agencies must work more closely together to safeguard computer networks from cyber attacks, President Barack Obama said Friday during a speech at Stanford University.

“This has to be a shared mission,” Obama said. “Government cannot do this alone. But the private sector cannot do it alone, either.”

Following his 30-minute address, Obama signed an executive order creating a framework for how companies can better share cyber data with the government. Obama said the order creates “hubs” that will allow businesses to share security information with one another and will also give corporations access to classified threat information that could potentially help protect them.

And he stressed the need to balance privacy protection with a need for increased security against hackers who threaten the country’s economy and public safety.

“Grappling with how the government protects the American people from adverse events while making sure the government itself is not abusing its capabilities is hard,” Obama said. “The cyber world is the wild, wild west. To some degree, we’re asked to be the sheriff.”

And he acknowledged that it is more than reasonable to ask, “What safeguards do we have against the government intruding on our own privacies?”

Obama standing behind a table waving to the audience.

President Obama waves to the audience after signing an executive order on the Memorial Auditorium stage. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

“When we go online, we shouldn’t have to forfeit the basic rights to privacy we have as Americans,” Obama said.

The president’s remarks were delivered during a White House Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection held at Stanford. The daylong event included panels moderated by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and attended by other government officials, Stanford scholars and the chief executives of major technology and health care companies, public utilities and financial institutions.

“Stanford’s proximity and sustained relationships with Silicon Valley are important assets in building a more secure cyber infrastructure,” Stanford President John Hennessy said in his welcoming remarks Friday morning. “But we need – and we have today – industry from across the country representing the many sectors that are connected to cyber systems.”

Friday’s summit came three months after Stanford launched a major Cyber Initiative. The initiative – funded with a $15 million grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation – brings together faculty and researchers from across campus to address the challenges posed by cyber technologies. It also intends to connect their academic work with policymakers and industry leaders.

“This is the beginning of a new challenge for the government and a new field of study for us,” Michael McFaul, director and senior fellow at the university’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, said after the president’s remarks. McFaul, who is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, served as Obama’s ambassador to Russia.

“For a president to come and talk about these issues is a huge boost to this as a subject of real inquiry. It’s rare that the White House does a summit not at the White House. It shows the importance of this institution, the initiative and the collaboration that need to take place between universities, government and the private sector.”

Obama ticked off a number of milestones that are the stuff of Stanford and Silicon Valley lore – the partnership between William Hewlett and David Packard, the creation of the computer mouse, the birth of Google, Yahoo and dozens of other tech companies that have redefined how life is lived around the world.

“When we had to decide where to have this summit, the decision was easy,” Obama said, adding that Stanford is helping to “lead the way” technology is developed and used.

Those points resonated with students who were able to attend the speech after receiving tickets through a lottery.

“So much that is done in Silicon Valley got its start here,” said Jason Chen, a sophomore interested in computer science and foreign languages. “Even though I don’t know what exactly I’m going to do, what part I may contribute, [Obama] made us all connected to each other, part of the same community.”

Obama also cited the university’s role in keeping a policy-relevant perspective when it comes to addressing issues of personal privacy and security against cyber threats. He also acknowledged the Stanford graduates and faculty members who have served in his administration – including Pritzker and McFaul; Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s senior adviser; Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; and Steven Chu, who served as Obama’s energy secretary.

President Obama behind a table on stage signing an executive order

President Obama signing an executive order creating a framework for how companies can better share cyber data with the government. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

The summit and Obama’s executive order come on the heels of high-profile computer network attacks that helped make the case for Obama to put cybersecurity at the top of his agenda. Hackers have breached the computer systems of federal agencies, Sony Pictures, Home Depot, Target and Anthem – the nation’s second-largest health insurer.

The Obama administration also announced this week the creation of the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center, which will share and help monitor cybersecurity intelligence gathered by government agencies.

Amy Zegart, co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, said after the talk that Stanford is an obvious place for Obama to discuss the responsibilities of tech companies when it comes to the safety of computer networks.

“The most important message that came across today is that this effort crosses all the traditional boundaries in academia, in industry, in government,” said Zegart, who has been a key player in the university’s Cyber Initiative and met with Obama just before the president delivered his remarks. “Cybersecurity is the ultimate team sport and the summit brought all the elements of the team together.”

And Kathy Garcia, a sophomore majoring in management science and engineering, said the president spoke about cybersecurity and consumer protection in a way that everyone could understand.

“He made a good point that to be successful, both the public and the private sectors have to work together,” Garcia said.

Before Obama’s remarks, Apple CEO Tim Cook talked about the privacy concerns that are inherent to data sharing. But he said the private sector and government agencies could work together to protect the safety and privacy of customers and citizens.

“Safeguarding world of digitized personal information is an enormous task,” he said. “And no single company or organization can accomplish it on its own. That is why we’re committed to engaging productively with the White House and Congress and putting the results of these conversations into action.”

Other business leaders attending the summit agreed.

“I think the president is really trying to come to grips with a really big problem that’s ever expanding,” said Art Coviello, executive chairman of the security firm RSA. “He’s doing it by executive order, but as was said so many times today, we need congressional action as well. We also need to ensure that we create the trust that we need between government and the private sector to ensure that we can have this public-private partnership. As a starting point, I think [the summit] was terrific, but let’s see a lot of action coming out of it.”

As weighty as the substance of his talk was, Obama opened his talk with some lighthearted comments about the bicycle-riding, fountain-splashing, Cardinal-obsessed Stanford students who have “made nerd cool.”

“Ambassador McFaul told me if I came to Stanford, he’d talk nerdy to me,” Obama said.

Then, getting to business, the president said: “I’m not just here to enjoy myself.”

A half-hour later, he signed his executive order and walked off the stage in Memorial Auditorium with a wave to the audience.

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Brooke Donald, Amy Adams, Kathleen Sullivan, Ker Than, Bjorn Carey and Tom Abate contributed to this report.