Editorial: Time to apply a patch

A renewed debate about patch management has highlighted a flaw in federal officials' views on information security.

A renewed debate about patch management has highlighted a flaw in federal officials' views on information security.

The General Accounting Office raised the issue in a report released last week. According to GAO auditors, more than half of the 24 agencies surveyed said they lack the staff and money needed to keep up with the security flaws that have been discovered in commercial software.

Major software vendors often publicize flaws soon after they are discovered and create the necessary software patches, but it is up to customers to track the list of vulnerabilities and download, test and apply the patches.

As such, patch management is not a solution that can be bought but rather a discipline that must be learned. To date, the federal government has been content to rely on the good intentions of individual agencies to take the initiative in installing patches. GAO's study shows that that approach has not been effective, and history suggests it will never succeed.

In 2001, the General Services Administration created a patch management service to which agencies could subscribe. But the service, later transferred to the Homeland Security Department, was cancelled earlier this year because so few agencies had enrolled.

Although it was groundbreaking in 2001, the program was no longer necessary because major software vendors were offering their own, better services, DHS officials said at the time.

Yet the fact remains that many agencies, despite their best intentions, do not take advantage of the services and therefore continue to be hit by worms and viruses long after the necessary patches have been available. With the onslaught showing no sign of abating, it's time for Bush administration officials to force the issue.

One option is for DHS to re-establish a central patch-management service, but with two major differences. First, it would be based on commercially available solutions, with DHS serving primarily as a services broker. Second, although subscriptions would not be mandatory, agencies would be required to "opt out" by demonstrating they have their own system in place.

Taking such a heavy-handed approach would not be politically popular among agencies, but leaving government systems vulnerable when solutions are available should no longer be seen as politically viable.

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