US intelligence chief calls cyber threats a top national security challenge

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US intelligence chief calls cyber threats a top national security challenge
US President Barack Obama.

Obama wants $26.9 billion infosec budget.

A top US intelligence official has warned Congress that cybersecurity threats are one of the most imminent security challenges facing the nation, as US President Barack Obama seeks a surge in funding for cybersecurity. 

In his annual assessment of threats, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned that fast-moving cyber and technological advances "could lead to widespread vulnerabilities in civilian infrastructures and US government systems". 

Clapper also outlined an array of other threats from Russia and North Korean nuclear ambitions to instability caused by the Syrian migrant crisis. 

The comments came after Obama asked for US$19 billion (A$26.9 billion) for cybersecurity across the US government in his fiscal 2017 budget proposal, an increase of US$5 billion over this year. 

While the White House's overall fiscal plan faces tough going in the Republican-controlled Congress, increased cybersecurity funding has won bipartisan support of lawmakers in the past. 

The request comes as the Obama administration has struggled to address the growing risk posed by criminals and nation states in the digital world. 

The Obama initiative calls for a more than one-third increase from the US$14 billion appropriated this year and would include US$3.1 billion for technology modernisation at various federal agencies. 

Cyber threats are "among the most urgent dangers to America’s economic and national security", Obama said in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published on Tuesday.  

The request for a cash infusion is the latest signal that the White House intends to make cyber security a priority in the last year of Obama’s presidency.  

It follows a series of high-profile hacks against US federal agencies and companies such as Sony Pictures and Target that were largely met with legislative inaction and administrative uncertainty. 

Those difficulties played out publicly last year when the Office of Personnel Management announced it had fallen victim to a hack that lifted sensitive information on roughly 22 million individuals from its databases.  

The White House issued an executive order setting up a presidential commission on cybersecurity, which would make recommendations for strengthening defences over the next decade. A new position of federal chief information security officer also would be established.  

A government watchdog report last month warned the government’s cyber defence system, known as Einstein, is ineffective at combating hackers. 

Obama also signed another executive order creating a permanent Federal Privacy Council, which aims to connect privacy officials across the government to develop comprehensive guidelines for how personal data is collected and stored. 

The president’s budget proposal also called for US$62 million to expand efforts to attract and retain qualified cyber professionals working for the government.

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