SAN FRANCISCO -- If there's one message Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano stressed during an address here at the RSA conference, it was the need for speed in dealing with cyber threats.

"We've spent quite a bit of time (focused on) where we stand as a country," Napolitano said. "All that thinking and strategizing is very nice, but it doesn't address where we need to be and act," she told thousands of IT and security professionals at RSA's annual trade show Wednesday afternoon.

Napolitano detailed various achievements and progress points DHS has made in the battle to shore up civilian government systems. She noted, for example, that the department has streamlined security development by coordinating efforts among agencies that were previously working in isolation. But she said the U.S. needs to "leapfrog forward" to achieve better cybersecurity and called on the audience and the security industry in general to help.

"We need to do more and do it faster," she said. While there is perhaps no ultimate technology solution to protect the country's digital infrastructure, Napolitano said her department wants to provide the ability to "bounce back" from an attack of any size, which would require more sophisticated failover and disaster recovery technology than is currently available.

"We have to get to a level of performance that maintains a safe and secure ecosystem -- an IT ecosystem that offers automation to security so we can act at Internet speed while ensuring privacy and enhanced authentication," she said.

"We want to make sure, and this is being discussed in the Congress, that the Department of Homeland Security has the legal and financial ability to attract and retain the talent we need," she added.

Napolitano noted that DHS was founded in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. "Terrorism and the fight against terrorism remains our core principle," she said. "But the department has to evolve. We don't live in a static world and ... we have to prepare for disasters from any source. The threats to cybersecurity are threats to our homeland."

Cybersecurity awareness campaign

At the end of her speech, Napolitano announced DHS has launched the National Cybersecurity Awareness Campaign Challenge Competition designed to solicit ideas from industry and individuals on the best ways to clearly convey the importance of cybersecurity to the American public.

"Entries are going to be judged on teamwork, use of Web 2.0 technology and privacy protection," she said. Finalists will appear at an event in Washington D.C. this spring. Napolitano said DHS will also partner with the winners to develop a campaign for October, which has been designated as Cybersecurity Awareness Month for the past six years.

David Needle is the West Coast bureau chief at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.