Ammon: Congress needs to open its purse

Poor federal security grades reflect congressional indifference

Federal officials experienced a mixture of elation and disappointment recently when lawmakers handed out grades for compliance with the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) of 2002. Government agencies deserve credit because so many of them earned passing grades despite scarce resources for FISMA and other information security initiatives.

FISMA is a critically important law that promotes a framework for protecting the government's vast information resources. However, the elaborate evaluation and grading process associated with FISMA compliance, coupled with minimal resources for achieving compliance, is equivalent to grading students for a course but refusing to provide them with textbooks.

The secure, efficient management of government information is vital to national security and economic success. Anyone involved in information security understands that investing even limited resources can yield great returns. For FISMA, however, those resources have not been forthcoming, and for some lawmakers to dismiss agency officials' complaints as whining is simply naïve.

Adequate resources are essential, but they are only one of several factors that could strengthen FISMA and the evaluation process. FISMA law and guidance need to distinguish among three types of information systems: new and planned systems, those that will be usable in the long run and those that are scheduled for rapid replacement.

Chief information officers or chief information security officers (CISOs) with limited means should put those resources into systems that they expect to use for at least three years. Systems destined for replacement require more substantial investments to secure. But under FISMA, failing to secure all systems, regardless of their status, puts an agency at risk of receiving a poor evaluation and grade.

In a world of unlimited resources, securing all systems might be possible. But we do not live in such a world. Prioritizing information assets and systems would improve the law and the evaluation process.

FISMA's aggregated reporting requirements, combined with inconsistent compliance strategies, also create problems for CIOs or CISOs responsible for managing information security within a department.

FISMA constitutes the most comprehensive effort in the public or private sector for protecting and securing information assets. The law continues to evolve, and its importance is growing.

It is a favorable sign that Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee and a primary author of FISMA, has recognized the significance of effective FISMA implementation by moving responsibility for the act and related information management issues from a subcommittee to the full committee.

Many industry and government officials welcome this decision and hope it portends much-needed FISMA oversight. Many of us also look to Davis' leadership for educating his congressional colleagues about the importance of providing even modest funding for this crucial law. n

Ammon is president and co-founder of NetSec Government Solutions, which MCI recently purchased.

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