Feds face mandatory security controls

Federal officials will soon be required to become experts in triage as they try to make their agencies comply with the Federal Information Security Management Act.

"We don't have unlimited funds to throw at this security problem," said Ron Ross, project leader for the FISMA Implementation Project at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. To be successful, he said, agencies should concentrate resources on protecting systems whose loss would cause serious or catastrophic consequences.

Beginning in January 2006, agencies must set up 17 minimum security controls on all major applications and general support systems, Ross said, speaking earlier this month at an information security training workshop in Washington,D.C., sponsored by the nonprofit Potomac Forum.

"It's not going to be easy to put in all these controls and get them working," Ross said. But making the effort is too important to ignore. "We're trying to establish a federal level of due diligence for all these systems," he added.

Security controls are measures to protect the confidentiality, integrity and availability of information. The more important an application or system is to an agency's mission, the stronger the controls must be, Ross said.

The security controls are described in NIST's "Special Publication 800-53: Recommended Security Controls for Federal Information Systems."

An example of a security control would be the use of a scanning tool to detect exploitable vulnerabilities in a system.

Ultimately, a senior official must take responsibility for whatever security vulnerabilities remain in an agency's systems after all reasonable protections have been applied.

Most systems are too complex to be completely secure, Ross said. Most security analysts like NIST's risk-management approach for creating the standard.

"This is going to be a very important standard because it hits all of the critical elements necessary to create an effective security program," said Paul Proctor, Gartner's vice president of the risk and privacy practice.

"The thing that comes closest to it is a British standard — BS 17799-2," Proctor said. But he said he likes the NIST standard better. "Put it down to personal preference," he added.

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