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When is an ISAC not an ISAC?

A lot of what went on at the White House Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection, held at  Stanford University last week was for show — a reaction in particular to the attacks allegedly carried out by North Korea against Sony pictures. Like any live event, was also clearly some desire to get lots of the right people in the same room news reports pointed out that several of the right people, including the CEOs from Google and accept checks, opted out.

But this was also an event where the President took the time to show up and deliver a speech. Furthermore, President Obama made a point of publicly signing an executive directive, creating an air of something happening. The sound bite for what was going on, the way that the broad market media covered it, was that this directive encouraged sharing of cyber security threat information between the government and the private sector.

It’s worth noting that most of what the order calls for already exists in one form or another.

The organization traditionally tasked with combating cybercrime as the FBI, though the DHS increasingly seems to think it’s their problem, or least that it’s their problem to detect incipient attacks and help build up private-sector defenses (since most of the infrastructure that makes up the Internet is in private hands). Presumably it’s still the FBI (and local law enforcement) that crashes through a hacker’s door and impounds their electronics before they can be wiped.

The FBI funded a nonprofit organization, InfraGard, to link US businesses to the FBI all the way back in 1996. Aside from the FBI efforts to foster cooperation, there are a number of information sharing and analysis centers (ISACs) for different industry verticals that were funded as a result of a presidential directive issued by Bill Clinton in 1998.

Since ISACs are still motoring right along, you could be forgiven if you found yourself wondering about the difference between an ISAC and an ISAO (information sharing and analysis organization), which is what Obama’s directive calls for.

As it turns out, there may well be no difference between an ISAC and ISAO, according to a fact sheet that the White House published alongside the directive. ISACs can be ISAOs, though they may have to follow somewhat different rules if they are, insofar as the directive also calls for a nonprofit agency to create a “common set of voluntary standards for ISAOs.”

Perhaps the key element lurking in the directive is the idea that this network of ISAOs, connecting to the National Cyber Security and Communications Integration Center (NCCIC) to foster public/private sharing, creates a framework that could serve as a reporting channel companies could use to gain protection from liability when reporting security incidents. This idea of liability protection for companies that share comes from legislation proposed by the President in January. It’s unclear whether Congress or the American public as much stomach for letting corporate America off the hook for leaving their barn doors open.

For the time being, though, just remember that an ISAC and and ISAO are probably the same thing. It’s just that now there’s going to be a whole lot more sharing going on for reasons that, well, aren’t entirely clear.