Former White House security chief and now director of the Cyber Security Industry Alliance (CSIA), Paul Kurtz, has flown to Europe to spread his message about the threat faced by global information systems.

According to Kurtz, if there was a colored alert system for the world's electronic infrastructure it would be bright orange for "high risk". "It's not appropriate to say the sky is falling, but I do think we are taking information security for granted," he explained.

The CSIA is a public policy advocacy group focused on cybersecurity. Launched in February 2004 by IT security firms RSA, McAfee and Symantec, it is now seeking to expand its membership in Europe.

Industry representatives approached Kurtz early last year, while he was still serving as special assistant to the president and senior director for critical infrastructure protection on the White House’s Homeland Security Council, making him responsible for both physical and cybersecurity.

"At first I thought Washington needs a new association like a hole in the head, but then after I thought about it I elected to leave the White House," Kurtz said. Part of the reason was that cybersecurity had been "put in the backseat" while physical security took precedence, he said. "It was very frustrating."

At CSIA, Kurtz and the member companies want to work on global cybersecurity issues such as privacy and information integrity, as well as help develop policies like notifying the public when their information has been exposed in a data breach. The group is focused on enterprise issues and its board comprises executives from McAfee, Symantec, and RSA, among others. "The bottom line is that the private sector is going to get attacked," Kurtz surmised.

The US government isn't taking cybersecurity seriously enough, Kurtz warns. In fact, it reduced research and development spending for the area in its latest budget. Some in the government still believe that cybercriminals are "pimply faced teenagers" and not organised crime gangs, Kurtz said.

But the threat has become much more real as recent high-profile cases have shaken consumer confidence. Earlier this month, 40 million credit card numbers were accessed by a hacker who infiltrated the network of a company that processed payment information for MasterCard. "As we've seen over the last few months, a lack of attention to detail can spill into the papers," Kurtz said.

According to a recent CSIA survey, 97 percent of the those polled said that they rate identity theft as a serious problem, while 93 percent said they saw spyware as a serious concern. Furthermore, fear of identity theft is keeping 48 percent of those polled from making purchases online.

"I mean half of the market is not engaged in e-commerce!" Kurtz said. "It goes to show that these problems have potentially long-term implications." By motivating the private sector to take action against cyberthreats, CSIA hopes its work will have a knock-on effect on public sector practices. "We need to raise these issues, but at the same time we need to make sure that the government doesn't overreact," Kurtz said.

Over regulation is a concern for the industry. The sector is looking for strong government leadership on IT security issues but at the same time many of those polled by the CSIA don't trust the US Congress to do what's right for the Internet, Kurtz said. "There's a lot of debate about the roles and responsibility of government and industry in information security. This is one of the things we are trying to work out," he said.

Overall, the CSIA is promoting a holistic approach to security and is willing to work with the variety of concerned players, Kurtz said. In Europe, it has begun working with agencies such as the EU's Article 29 working party on data protection.

"We are in Europe to take the next step and really think about these issues more broadly," Kurtz said. The association expects to eventually extend into Asia, with the goal of establishing a global organization.

"So often the US rides in to 'save the day,' but we do not want to bring a US solution, we want to bring a harmonized solution," Kurtz said.