US lawmakers are backing a bill that will let spy agencies share top-secret information on cyber threats with certain pre-approved companies, and allow firms to give out data on their customers to the spies.
The Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence voted to put forward the legislation (PDF), which would build on a pilot programme in the Pentagon sharing clandestine and sensitive data with defence contractors and internet firms.
“There is an economic cyber war going on today against US companies,” the chairman of the committee Mike Rogers said in a statement supporting the bill.
“There are two types of companies in this country: those who know they’ve been hacked, and those who don’t know they’ve been hacked.
"Economic predators, including nation-states, are blatantly stealing business secrets and innovation from private companies. This cybersecurity bill goes a long way in helping American businesses better protect their networks and their intellectual property," he added.
Companies including Microsoft, IBM and Verizon have all written in support of the bill, saying it will help them to combat cyber threats more effectively.
However, the bill also provides for private entities sharing information with intelligence agencies, something that privacy advocates aren't too happy about.
An amendment to the bill that attempts to deal with privacy concerns states that the data can only be used for cyber or national security reasons – but many would say that casts a fairly wide net.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has already said that it will oppose the bill if more privacy protections aren't put in place.
"The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act would create a cybersecurity exception to all privacy laws and allow companies to share the private and personal data they hold on their American customers with the government for cybersecurity purposes," the ACLU said in a letter to the committee.
"The bill would not limit the companies to sharing only technical, non-personal data. Instead, it would give the companies discretion to decide the type and amount of information to turn over to the government.
"While such data might be used for cybersecurity purposes, there would be no bar on the government also using it to conduct fishing expeditions for criminal, immigration or other purposes," it added.
The US has become increasingly concerned about the cybersecurity of its firms and cyber-espionage from foreign countries.
Last month, a government report claimed that agents from both China and Russia were frequently hacking into US firms to make off with their technological and economic secrets, although it stopped short of saying that their governments were definitely behind the cyber attacks.
The House of Representatives committee on intelligence also launched an investigation last month into Chinese telecoms firms in the country, including Huawei and ZTE, to look at "the extent to which" the companies were giving their government the opportunity to spy on the US.
China's government and its firms have hotly denied the allegations, and say they want to cooperate with investigations and sort out cyber espionage as much as the next country. ®