Code Red? White House Unveils Color-Coded Cyber-Attack Scale


The White House this week released new ground rules for handling cyber attacks, complete with a color-coded "cyber incident severity schema" reminiscent of the Bush-era Homeland Security Advisory System.

The Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) on United States Cyber Incident Coordination aims to clarify how and when government agencies handle incidents.

"The schema describes a cyber incident's severity from a national perspective, defining six levels, zero through five, in ascending order of severity," the White House explained. "Each level describes the incident's potential to affect public health or safety, national security, economic security, foreign relations, civil liberties, or public confidence."

Level one (green), for instance, means a hack is "unlikely" to make much impact, level two (yellow) suggests the possibility, and level three (orange) means is is likely.

The real trouble starts once you enter level four (red), when a hack will cause "a significant impact." The country would surely enter a state of emergency once we reach level five (black), which means the attack "poses an imminent threat."

Anything at level three or higher is considered "significant," and triggers a coordinated effort to address the threat.

For more than seven years, the Obama Administration has worked to boost cyber security among public, private, and consumer sectors and deter malicious activity aimed at the US and its allies. But the US continues to suffer increasingly significant cyber attacks affecting the private sector and the federal government, according to the White House.

This week's PPD, however, is "one more crucial step" to improve the nation's cyber security, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said in a statement.

"It not only clarifies the roles of the various government actors involved in cybersecurity," he continued. "It re-enforces the reality that cybersecurity must be a partnership between the government and the private sector, and among the law enforcement, homeland security, and intelligence components of the government."

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