Transportation builds security dashboard

The Transportation Department has one of the biggest information technology operations in the federal government

With $3.6 billion in planned fiscal 2003 investments spread among 15 organizations, the Transportation Department has one of the biggest information technology operations in the federal government. This delivers obvious advantages and opportunities, but it also produces major headaches for developing an agencywide security oversight process.

But that is just what department officials are trying to do with the creation of a single, departmentwide incident management solution. Such a system, run by the office of the chief information officer, will let agency officials see all of the department's security systems through a single, Web-based portal. That will help them identify which areas are the most vulnerable to attack and where the most urgent fixes are needed.

"The DOT wants a situation where, with their first coffee of the day, someone who wants to know what the security situation is can sit down and see what the IT team has to do that day to keep the enterprise at a high state of readiness, and what it needs to do to keep the network up and running," said Ron Moritz, senior vice president for Computer Associates International Inc.'s eTrust solutions group, one of the industry vendors working with the department on the incident management system.

Building this kind of system involves several challenges. Each of the intrusion-detection systems, firewalls and other security devices that have been installed throughout the department — many of them from Computer Associates' eTrust family of security products — has to be linked through a single database, for example. And each of the department's far-flung organizations have built their own IT infrastructures and must be cajoled into cooperating under this new security umbrella.

What is really being addressed, Moritz said, is "how to manage the workflow of the changes you need to make, because you don't own the machine or system that needs to be changed and there is a political structure you need to interact with."

The first year of the plan, just completed, was spent on educating people in the department on the importance of cybersecurity and why it needs to be integrated with businesses processes.

"That first step was all about developing the processes and getting the right people in place and trained to run this [incident management] capability," Schlosser said. "A year ago, we couldn't have attempted any of this."

Foundstone Inc. played a big role in the early part of the project. Using its vulnerability scanning and management solution, the company was able to provide Schlosser with a scoring mechanism that established a baseline of where different organizations within DOT stood, said Alan Deane, Foundstone's vice president of eastern sales.

In a three-month period, the company was able to show where progress was being made to improve security. It also identified what additional remedies were needed to increase the score of each organization.

As part of the process, assets on the network were discovered and labeled — including servers, workstations, firewalls and modems — and a road map was established of what needed to be remediated. That plan was then fed back into the Foundstone solution to complete the remediation cycle.

At that point, a lot of work was out of the way because the technology will remember what was done before and help automate the process going forward, Deane said. "But the first time can be challenging [because you have to gain] the internal consensus within the organization on the metrics used and the structured methodology required to assign the criticality ratings," he added.

One of the other advantages of the Foundstone product, Schlosser said, is that it not only identifies the assets at risk, but also determines who is responsible for the remediation and offers a status report. Foundstone's one-stop Web portal displays the department's assets and vulnerabilities, so she can see who is responsible for patching and remediating an asset and call them to find out how they are doing.

It's that kind of accountability that Schlosser believes will push processes forward faster than they have gone so far.

"In the past, organizations [in the department] ran vulnerability scans and other kinds of surveys, and the results would be collected into 500-page reports, which would then collect dust on a shelf somewhere," she said, because no one would follow up to make sure things were fixed.

With the new organizational process in place, Schlosser hopes that the technology integration needed to tie the various security devices together, which is just getting under way, will be relatively easy to accomplish.

At least, she said, "that's what we are challenging our industry partners to do."

That in turn should lead to faster and more accurate analysis of which assets throughout the department have come under attack and where defenses most need to be strengthened. Other officials across government are also seeking this kind of big-picture view of incident information (see "Governmentwide security surveillance net takes shape").

The goal, Schlosser said, is to gain economic and organizational efficiencies across DOT and its programs to first boost detection and response capabilities and then see how to invest in preventive systems so that potential threats can be found and eliminated before they can inflict damage.

"It's costing us time and money jumping through hoops reacting to all of these things," she said. "This [incident management capability] will allow us to be more efficient and to add more security to our architecture in an automated manner [rather] than through the costly manual process we have to follow now."

And that capability is not far off. It's "a very near-term product," Schlosser said.

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

NEXT STORY: About T-bills and the F fund

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