Getting buyers to think security

One of the biggest vulnerabilities in cybersecurity is the procurement process. And some experts say the situation needs more than a patch.

Security has long tended to be an afterthought in information technology procurements. Often, the basic security measures outlined in contract proposal notices fail to address the vulnerabilities that are most likely to put federal systems at risk of being attacked or sabotaged.

For example, how can an agency be sure that a so-called American-made system does not contain parts or software code developed in hostile countries? And how can an agency be sure that flaws in connecting systems won’t compromise its network’s security?

Any good chief information security officer understands the importance of those questions. But too often, CISOs are brought into the loop only after the system has been developed and is ready to go online, at which point correcting any oversights becomes a patch job.

By contrast, good security planning happens simultaneously with procurement planning, experts say.

“We’re trying to not do security as a separate activity anymore,” said Ron Ross, who leads the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s project to implement the Federal Information Security Management Act. “In many cases, security gets dropped, and it doesn’t come on the radar until it’s too late.”

One concern is the global supply chain. The software and hardware used in federal IT systems are developed in various parts of the world, and government officials and systems integrators say well-defined contract requirements related to a system’s security are crucial to ensuring that the parts come from reliable dealers and can stand up to a constant battering of cyberattacks.

Agency officials want to avoid the cost of patching a major IT system, so knowing where the contractors get their parts has become a key point in contract proposals.

“What you can’t see and is on the other side of the world can, in fact, harm you,” said Dale Meyerrose, former chief information officer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and now vice president and general manager of cyber programs at Harris.

Procurement officials also must ensure that the information systems they buy have the appropriate cybersecurity controls, such as limiting access to specific agency employees with adequate clearances.

To make matters more complicated, procurement officials must think about how their systems connect with others that are beyond their control. It is not enough to write clear contract requirements to guard their own systems. They must also consider how their security strategies mesh with those of others.

The government’s effort to protect the country’s critical infrastructure sectors — such as electric utilities, water systems and nuclear power facilities — are further complicated by the large percentage that are privately owned. That infrastructure increasingly relies on computer-based control systems.

“As we move into more integrated, interconnected, intelligent devices, we’re going to have to increase our awareness and our level of understanding of cybersecurity or else we are going to be introducing a layer of exposure and vulnerability that maybe wasn’t there in the past,” said Sean McGurk, director of the Control Systems Security Program at the Homeland Security Department’s National Cybersecurity Division (NCSD).

He said the government must consider each sector when applying new requirements. “Otherwise, what’s good for one could potentially disrupt operations in another,” he said.

Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, said federal agencies have the same need that utilities have to incorporate security when they buy systems.

Traditionally, NIST officials have developed the basic security measures for civilian agencies’ IT systems so they will comply with federal information security statutes. But those standards have differed from the requirements for defense and intelligence IT systems.

“We can see duplicative answers in different places,” said John Stewart, chief security officer at Cisco Systems. "So one division of the government could buy up this answer, another division could buy another one, and what ends up happening then is you get an inconsistent design."

Collaborative efforts

That situation could change this summer. NIST, ODNI and the Committee on National Security Systems, which the Defense Department leads, plan to release a set of fundamental security system guidelines that would apply governmentwide. They’re all trying to take the same approach to security, particularly as agencies share more information.

The closely knit defense and intelligence communities have been working for some time to make sure their systems match. But now NIST is joining them to create a basic catalog of appropriate security standards that civilian agencies could also use.

“The objective of this project is to come up with a single set of security controls that can be used by all federal agencies and the contractors that support those agencies,” Ross said. “This has a huge impact because you then will be speaking with a single voice across the federal government.”

Writing the catalog and integrating the guidelines into the federal enterprise architecture could aid the procurement process in several ways. For example, contractors would have a clearer view of basic security requirements, such as which agency employees will use the system and what type of information it will hold. The contractors could then develop software and hardware accordingly.

Federal officials could also take better advantage of the government’s purchasing power to improve IT security and avoid having to fix a system once it has been deployed.

In December 2008, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency recommended that the government work with industry to develop security guidelines for buying IT products, with software as the first priority. The commission’s report states that the largest buyer of IT products needs a carefully crafted acquisition strategy to drive the market toward more secure configurations.

“We can use federal IT procurements to ensure that systems and software acquired by the government come securely configured from the vendor and that security is incorporated into products from the start of the design and development process,” the commission members wrote.

In addition, comprehensive cybersecurity legislation recently proposed in the Senate would create a governmentwide acquisition board to review and approve high-value IT projects and establish validation standards for software used in federal systems.

So far, much of the government’s effort to address cybersecurity in the procurement process involves working with industry rather than issuing mandates for specific types of software or industrial control systems. For example, DHS’ NCSD has been working with vendors to increase security by testing and evaluating products used for control systems. Through its Software Assurance Forum, the department has also issued guidance on software procurement.

Joe Jarzombek, director of software assurance at DHS’ NCSD, said many companies have realized that ensuring the security of their software can differentiate them in a competitive marketplace, and they aren’t waiting for new requirements or mandates to secure their systems and supply chains.

Securing software boils down to following sound practices and having elements in place to prevent internal and external threats, he added.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

The 2015 Federal 100

Meet 100 women and men who are doing great things in federal IT.


  • Shutterstock image (by venimo): e-learning concept image, digital content and online webinar icons.

    Can MOOCs make the grade for federal training?

    Massive open online courses can offer specialized IT instruction on a flexible schedule and on the cheap. That may not always mesh with government's preference for structure and certification, however.

  • Shutterstock image (by edel): graduation cap and diploma.

    Cybersecurity: 6 schools with the right stuff

    The federal government craves more cybersecurity professionals. These six schools are helping meet that demand.

  • Rick Holgate

    Holgate to depart ATF

    Former ACT president will take a job with Gartner, follow his spouse to Vienna, Austria.

  • Are VA techies slacking off on Yammer?

    A new IG report cites security and productivity concerns associated with employees' use of the popular online collaboration tool.

  • Shutterstock image: digital fingerprint, cyber crime.

    Exclusive: The OPM breach details you haven't seen

    An official timeline of the Office of Personnel Management breach obtained by FCW pinpoints the hackers’ calibrated extraction of data, and the government's step-by-step response.

  • Stephen Warren

    Deputy CIO Warren exits VA

    The onetime acting CIO at Veterans Affairs will be taking over CIO duties at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

  • Shutterstock image: monitoring factors of healthcare.

    DOD awards massive health records contract

    Leidos, Accenture and Cerner pull off an unexpected win of the multi-billion-dollar Defense Healthcare Management System Modernization contract, beating out the presumptive health-records leader.

  • Sweating the OPM data breach -- Illustration by Dragutin Cvijanovic

    Sweating the stolen data

    Millions of background-check records were compromised, OPM now says. Here's the jaw-dropping range of personal data that was exposed.

  • FCW magazine

    Let's talk about Alliant 2

    The General Services Administration is going to great lengths to gather feedback on its IT services GWAC. Will it make for a better acquisition vehicle?

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