How agencies can improve cybersecurity -- without waiting for Congress


White House efforts to better protect the networks of government agencies and critical infrastructure operators have been described as a down payment on federal cybersecurity, but with fast-moving threats and continued intrusions, officials are looking for ways to get more secure more quickly.

After Congress failed to pass cybersecurity legislation last year, President Barack Obama introduced an executive order that focuses on security standards, information sharing and privacy protections. Those directives are now in the early stages of going into effect. Lawmakers have vowed to take up cyber legislation again this year, but in the meantime, a new report offers a framework for federal, state and local agencies to get ahead on cybersecurity.

SafeGov issued the report, titled “Measuring What Matters: Reducing Risk by Rethinking How We Evaluate Cybersecurity,” in conjunction with the National Academy of Public Administration at an event March 26. The document states that "despite the guidance of experts and millions of taxpayer dollars, federal information systems remain critically vulnerable to breaches and cyberattacks. This approach will strengthen the security of government information systems and improve the overall management of government resources by focusing scarce resources on the areas that pose the highest risks to agencies' missions."

The guidelines build on work already under way at a number of agencies, including the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Homeland Security and the General Services Administration. They rely heavily on inspector general evaluations of how agencies are complying with the Federal Information Security Management Act.

Officials who spoke at the SafeGov event outlined some of the current multi-agency efforts that underpin the recommendations and framework. They include continuous monitoring programs, automated systems for intrusion detection, standards development, and reforms to both FISMA and the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP), which SafeGov recommends be expanded beyond cloud-based products and services.

John Streufert, director of federal network resilience at DHS, said his agency is making progress on a comprehensive continuous diagnostics and mitigation program designed to secure government networks.

DHS is working with the CIO Council and individual agencies to assess current continuous monitoring tools and will use those assessments to set up task orders and prepare for the upcoming acquisition of security sensors and services.

"In the April to June time frame, we'll be evaluating those results," Streufert said. "Some [agencies] have no tools, some have uneven [uses] of tools within subordinate units.... We're trying to get to a standard, enterprisewide assessment of risk."

After that, likely between July and September, task orders will be awarded and data from the evaluations will begin to feed into a governmentwide dashboard that addresses both local and global requirements, he added.

The extensive assessments and evaluations are a major component of SafeGov's recommendations, which also focus on the development of a risk-management foundation that can be deployed governmentwide. The report recommends that IGs prioritize their findings according to their agencies’ risk level and that CIOs lead efforts to integrate IG findings into overall strategies and processes.

Furthermore, the report advocates that GSA expand FedRAMP and use a security framework to overcome shortcomings in FISMA that have blocked the government's ability to improve its cybersecurity posture.

David McClure, associate administrator of GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, said those suggestions fit the agency’s overall vision for FedRAMP.

"Foundationally, what we've done in the FedRAMP program is try to address what some of the implementation challenges are, not only with cloud security but with any security in the government," McClure said. "The problem with FISMA has always been execution and implementation. It's not necessarily the thinking behind what's necessary; it's how do we actually do the testing, controls, evidence, building trust and results."

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

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