What are your weaknesses?
Automated assessment tools help agencies steer limited resources to biggest vulnerabilities
- By Jennifer Jones
- Jun 06, 2005
Slick simulation software can now accurately predict patterns of explosions down to the trajectory of flying glass shards. Such
sophisticated modeling tools along with a new crop of decision-support systems that automate security checklists and risk assessment methodologies are regularly pitched to homeland security officials as vital components of vulnerability assessment exercises.
But it might not be enough that these applications realistically craft would-be consequences around worst-case scenarios. To gain ground with cash-strapped homeland security officials, vendors will have to prove that the new tools vastly enhance classic risk-assessment exercises, in which subject-matter experts manually comb data about facilities and critical infrastructures looking for weak spots.
Many government officials are comfortable with their established vulnerability assessment exercises, which might make it difficult for newer technology vendors to make major market inroads.
"We don't think any of the technology we have seen so far is capable of giving you the broad base of information necessary for doing assessments. The 'eyes-on-the-ground' method is still preferred," said Capt. Tony Regalbuto, chief of policy and planning in the Coast Guard's Port Security Directorate.
Toolmakers also have to make their case to government customers struggling to afford the most basic security measures. "Technology modeling and decision-support tools are, in my view, out of favor," said Alistair Macnab, president of the Greater Houston Port Bureau. "There's much more interest in such things as video surveillance, motion sensors, global positioning satellite communications, fencing, lights and access control."
Aging infrastructures, such as those built around dated water treatment plants, can also work against using technical solutions to measure risks. "Typically, these are very fragmented infrastructures that have followed the growth patterns of a county," said Jack Harper, president and chief executive officer of BSI2000, a consulting firm that recently won a deal to assess and fortify security at the Beacham Water Treatment Plant in Athens, Ga.
At water treatment facilities, experts sometimes work from paper blueprints, but they still manage to assemble mock attacks that turn up "not what you think might be vulnerabilities but what they've actually encountered as vulnerabilities," Harper said. "It's very difficult to come up with software that does that thinks and analyzes like a human being."
Even with the government's current emphasis on essential security tools and heavy reliance on security experts, vulnerability assessment tools already play limited roles in homeland security efforts at all government levels.
For instance, Coast Guard officials use sophisticated applications to model fiery blasts from small-boat attacks on vessels docked in busy harbors. The agency is incorporating a new application developed by the Navy the Integrated Anti-Swimmer System that uses sonar capabilities to predict the details of devastation caused by swimmers wearing explosives. Data extracted from these systems is made available to Coast Guard port captains at the nation's 55 most visible ports.
Decision-support programs that assign values and tie algorithms to security checklists have also enjoyed a degree of success. For example, all of Florida's law enforcement and emergency response workers now have access to a new software program that walks them through a common set of questions about assets and security measures already in place. Responses are then churned into a set of potential weaknesses and suggested action items to mitigate identified risks.
The program is called the Automated Homeland Security Comprehensive Assessment Model (HLS-CAM), a software system developed by Intelliorg.
Indeed, a small cadre of technology vendors is now on the government radar, and some are landing deals with agencies and integrators alike. "There are about 100 tools out there. Out of those, about 10 are viable and about five have proved satisfactory to government customers," said Hank Chase, director of homeland security programs at ITS, an integrator that has partnerships with a handful of vulnerability assessment vendors.
EDS is slowly putting similar partnerships in place, because government customers are increasingly willing to mix technical components into traditional risk assessment exercises.
"There is interest in it," said Steve Hutchens, director of homeland security in EDS' U.S. Government Solutions. "But I wouldn't necessarily call it a trend at this point."
Having integrators as partners is a new wrinkle for some vulnerability assessment technology vendors. For example, Digital Sandbox entered into an arrangement with Booz Allen Hamilton a while ago in which the consulting firm used Digital Sandbox's Site Profiler assessment software engine to create its own tool, Analytical Risk Management-Infrastructure Resilience (see box, below).
But overall, allying with systems integrators in pursuit of government deals has been rare for Digital Sandbox. "In the past, systems integrators have been our competitors, but this year, we are predicting that will change," said Bryan Ware, the company's CEO.
That change is largely due to the government's growing insistence that vulnerability assessment exercises be quantified and documented based on repeatable standards, Ware said.
"Any one of the large government contractors can build their own vulnerability assessment databases," he said. "Our whole value proposition is that we provide good commercial software with risk assessment metrics that are deployable across an entire
The Homeland Security Department is interested in ways to standardize vulnerability assessments. Reluctant to mandate that its agencies use only certain vendors, DHS will instead likely require that tools used to prepare risk assessments contain a common list of elements and features, Ware said.
The standardization push at DHS is probably tied to the agency's drive for better data on which to base homeland security funding decisions, said Jeff Vining, an analyst at Gartner.
"DHS wants to get a better idea of the threats facing different entities so they can prioritize and put security funding in the places that need it most," Vining said. "Prioritization is a Herculean task and an area that has not gone well for DHS."
Setting priorities can be difficult at any level. Local governments now scramble to assess infrastructures, often without DHS' help. "We have asked for grants four times and been rejected four times," Macnab said of the port's vulnerability assessment petition.
The lack of federal support forces local governments to be creative. Houston tapped private sources to stitch together a network of government and corporate players that would have to respond to any local incidents.
"The unique communications system is being paid for through subscriptions from all corporate participants with governmental participants being given no-cost access," Macnab said.
Because funds are so tight, the most successful vulnerability assessment tools will likely be practical solutions that help government users prioritize security spending. Added interest would naturally go to those tools that help government officials make their funding case to decision-makers.
"We want a system that looks at an environment from an entire risk standpoint," the Coast Guard's Regalbuto said.
Officials at the Coast Guard and other agencies need to know not only the probable outcomes surrounding an attack but also the likelihood of each scenario and the ultimate value of vulnerable targets, he said. Once this full set of information is in hand, officials can then decide how best to use scarce homeland security funds.
Whether or not automated tools are used to support vulnerability reduction efforts, homeland security officials should be wary of allowing the exercises to stagnate, said Kay Goss, EDS' senior adviser for homeland security, business continuity planning and emergency management services.
"Sometimes there is the tendency to get everyone in the same room and focus on the same issues," Goss said. "It's important to tweak assessments, but you have to resist redoing exercises that reach the same results without moving on."
She cited poor communications as a finding that constantly emerges on vulnerability assessment exercises.
Relevant simulations or decision-support systems that move findings forward will be the most successful offerings in government officials' opinions, Ware said.
"Agencies are not looking for more reports that sit in file cabinets or on bookshelves," he said. One way to advance vulnerability assessment exercises and avoid rehashing earlier findings might be incorporating new tools to enhance collaboration and make connections subject-matter experts might have missed.
"Our tool establishes a virtual group of law enforcement representatives or emergency management personnel who get together and look at threats that exist in a community," said Yasmin Tirado-Chiodini, president and CEO of Intelliorg.
"By running these workers through a series of questions, the system is able to extract intelligence," Tirado-Chiodini said. With these solutions, officials are also able to look more systematically at the community's most critical assets. "Users are able to prioritize assets and vulnerabilities and decide where they want to dig deeper," she said.
In the end, balance and savings are crucial, said Daniel See, an associate at Booz Allen. "Risk-based decision-making should involve a systematic approach, so officials are not putting all of their resources in one basket," he said.
Jones is a freelance writer based in Vienna, Va.