Putnam: Clinger-Cohen needs a cybersecurity boost

Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) stepped up efforts last week to put computer security in the public spotlight. The congressman introduced a cybersecurity amendment to the Clinger-Cohen Act, the landmark 1996 legislation that put controls on information technology spending in the federal government.

The amendment would require agencies to factor information security into all strategic planning and buying decisions.

For months, Putnam has said he was considering proposing such an amendment. By the end of the week, many federal officials had not found time to study the bill. But several security industry executives familiar with the proposal said they favored the amendment because it strengthens federal cybersecurity procurement policy.

The Putnam amendment comes when the computer software industry is struggling to respond to a growing public demand for secure software. Many government offices and businesses lack security experts who know how to adjust the default security controls of most commercial software.

Because security controls can limit the usefulness of software — and, in some cases, break software programs that worked when there were no security controls — the software industry has shipped products with security controls disabled. But that is changing, security

experts say, and just in time for a potentially major change in federal procurement.

Passage of Putnam's amendment could mean the federal government will have

to buy software that is secure from the time it is shipped.

The cyberworld was a much safer place in 1996, when Clinger-Cohen was enacted, said Bob Dix, Putnam's chief of staff. Putnam is chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census Subcommittee.

Putnam "felt it was necessary to update the language to reflect the dangerous climate that exists today," Dix said. The amendment responds to a growing need "to protect our networks and the information assets they contain."

The proposed amendment, which is only two pages long, would add the word "security" or variations of that word, in four places in the existing Clinger-Cohen law. The slight additions are significant, however, because they put computer security requirements into the law that governs federal IT spending.

Through changes in administration, the law will apply, Dix said, "no matter who may be guiding the ship in the Office of Management and Budget." OMB is the agency that interprets the Clinger-

Cohen Act and pushes federal agencies to comply.

Last week, Putnam's subcommittee referred the Clinger-Cohen amendment to the House Government Reform Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), has promised to help pass the bill. Dix said the bill has strong bipartisan support in the House and the Senate, although no senator has offered to sponsor similar legislation.

Recognition of the importance of cybersecurity and the need to protect computers that control the nation's critical infrastructure is not a Republican or a Democratic issue, said Bill Conner, chairman and chief executive officer of Entrust Inc., a computer security company. "This is one that both parties are supportive of, at least in concept," he said.

Computer industry officials who favor the amendment said it reinforces the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002. "They very nicely complement each other," said Clint Kreitner, president of the nonprofit Center for Internet Security (CIS).

FISMA deals with the risks of using computer software that is insecure. Clinger-Cohen recognizes the government's need to buy new software that is secure out of the box. Both problems are getting easier to fix, Kreitner said.

By bringing together software makers, businesses and government agencies, CIS officials develop security configurations through consensus and testing.

With or without a Clinger-Cohen amendment this year, Microsoft Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., Oracle Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. and other companies will remain actively involved as members of CIS' benchmark teams, Kreitner said. And federal officials will find they can buy more software that is secure out of the box.

Buying software is like buying cars, Kreitner said. "It's better to get your

automobile with air bags and antilock brakes and seat belts already installed, rather than have them thrown into a box in the trunk."

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above