Companies look to gov't for help in dealing with cyberattacks

(CBS News) WASHINGTON - The Obama administration told Congress this week that attacks by computer are a bigger threat to Americans than terrorism. To counter hackers, American firms spent more than $10 billion last year on cybersecurity. But the hits just keep coming.

When Heartland Payment Systems was hacked in 2008, it was the largest financial data breach in U.S. history.

"It was clear that the bad guys had been in our system for long enough that it was a substantial number of records," said Bob Baldwin, vice chairman of Heartland.

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About 130 million debit and credit card numbers were compromised. Instead of trying to cover it up, Heartland took the unusual step of going public -- sharing information to help the financial industry develop more secure computer networks.

"To try and keep it secret," said Baldwin, "really would mean that the industry remain vulnerable to ongoing attacks."

But as those attacks continue, the private sector is now looking for more help from the government in defending key systems and critical infrastructure -- something most private companies really can't do on their own.

"Currently, there's a big legal debate about what your activities can be on somebody else's computer," said cyberlegal expert Steve Chabinsky. He added that certain corporations do have the capability to attack the hackers. But most are reluctant to respond without clear-cut legal protections.

"You never want the private sector to operate in ways that it has to worry about liability," he said. "You don't want everyone running amok."

Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the U.S. Cyber Command, testified this week the Pentagon is now developing offensive teams to go after hackers and cyberspies.

"To act quickly," said Alexander, "we must have clear lanes of responsibility and rules of engagement. We all recognize the private sector plays a key role in this area."

It's clear the government and private businesses urgently need a coordinated plan. The U.S. economy is losing hundreds of billions of dollars each year to cyberthieves, who show no sign of backing off.