President's Message

Digital Dangers: ABA Pursues Practical and Legislative Responses to Cybersecurity Threats


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Photo of Laurel Bellows by Marc Hauser.

A water treatment facility releases millions of gallons of wastewater into an environmentally sensitive river system. Power fails in a northern city already struggling to stay warm during a cold spell. Information systems we increasingly rely on, including cellphones and email, are blacked out and families have no means to communicate with each other. These are scenes reminiscent of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, but they could just as easily be a preview of emerging cybersecurity threats to our entire nation.

The same digital revolution that has been a boon for the world economy is also a target of attack for hackers, organized crime, terrorists and nations that hope to steal personal, corporate and government information, as well as disrupt commerce and military operations.

Our world—banking, medical histories, defense research, confidential client records—is online and vulnerable. Information technology has made private data more accessible, and its integration into critical infrastructure like utilities and airports has opened the door to every malevolent actor with an Internet connection. The FBI lists identity theft as the fastest-growing crime in the world. Last October, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned that cyberspace is a new battlefield, and that without preparation our nation may one day face a “cyber-Pearl Harbor, an attack that will cause physical destruction and the loss of life.”

The American Bar Association has always been at the forefront in discussing issues that affect the legal profession. For this reason, our association has assembled the Cybersecurity Legal Task Force and charged it with examining ways to help lawyers protect their practices and their clients’ confidential information and intellectual property. The task force will also position the ABA to contribute to the national dialogue about cyberissues. Composed of experts in national security, disaster preparedness, cybertechnology and privacy, the task force draws on the experience of lawyer volunteers across ABA entities representing diverse areas of concern. For instance, the ABA Section of Business Law is focusing on identity and authentication issues in cyberspace and has engaged international telecommunication companies.

The section’s subcommittees are developing projects on cyber-related topics, including cloud computing, smart grid technologies and cybersecurity for museums. The Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section offers podcasts—available at its website—on aspects of cybersecurity and disasters caused by accident, terrorism or acts of nature. The Law Practice Management Section—like the Business Law Section and the Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section—also offers training and CLE programs.

The task force is building a cyber-response handbook and bibliography of existing legal authorities. The handbook will include steps for stakeholders to take in the event of an attack on critical infrastructure. In addition, task force members are drafting a guidebook to help lawyers and law firms navigate the business and client tidewaters of cybersecurity.

To offer broad guidance for policyholders considering cyber-related legislation, the ABA recently adopted cybersecurity principles that lay a foundation for offering input about the fundamentals—including public-private frameworks, interagency and public-private information sharing, and civil liberties protections—that our association knows are important. The ABA will continue to monitor proposed cybersecurity legislation and represent the interests of lawyers on Capitol Hill.

I am proud of the way the ABA is coming together to confront cybersecurity risks. Thanks to the commitment of ABA Cybersecurity Legal Task Force members, the work of section volunteers who plan and participate in cyber-related CLEs, and the vigilance of our legal community dedicated to protecting client and employer data, the ABA is demonstrating important leadership on an issue of critical importance to our clients, our law practices, our nation and the international arena.

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