Security initiatives start to converge

Many in the federal IT community see greater emphasis on operational assurance

A recent harsh report from the Government Accountability Office on federal information technology security is a snapshot in time that many public- and private-sector experts say does not reflect the current path of federal IT security. They say the results of several initiatives will soon make IT security an integral part of daily operations.

One of those initiatives is the Office of Management and Budget’s release of baseline security configurations for Microsoft’s Windows operating systems. Experts also pointed to standardization being realized through OMB’s Security Line of Business initiative and new guidance from the National Institute of Standards and Technology for measuring how well agencies have implemented security controls. With those initiatives converging, experts said, agencies will soon have the tools to clear up a number of weaknesses that GAO’s auditors found.

Some experts said the security initiatives, including Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12, will operationalize many of the requirements of the Federal Information Security Management Act. Karen Evans, OMB’s administrator for IT and e-government, said each of the initiatives build on one another.

“All these things agencies should be working on, and if they really are doing them in the way we intended, which means having a good risk-management-based approach in managing information in an agency, then your security should be improving,” Evans said.

OMB has been trying to move agencies beyond a paperwork approach to FISMA compliance for some time, and Evans said those initiatives are part of that effort.
NIST will provide guidance for measuring how well agencies’ security controls are working. “We will give agencies tools to deploy the right controls and measure how they are working,” said Ron Ross, senior computer scientist at NIST. “A good deployment of these controls within the risk-management framework can go a long way to stopping” cyberattacks.

It is that hardening of defenses that GAO said is falling short.

“Weaknesses exist predominantly in access controls, including authentication and identification, authorization, cryptography, audit and monitoring, boundary protection, and physical security,” the report states. “Weaknesses also exist in configuration management, segregation of duties and continuity of operations.”

In its report, GAO said most agency systems lack basic controls and are vulnerable to internal and external threats. 

“If you look solely at FISMA reporting, it would appear there has been a lot of progress and, in some ways, there has,” said Jeffrey Knott, assistant director of information security issues at GAO. “But you have to look at the effectiveness
of those activities that were used in getting those outcomes in FISMA, and I wonder how effective they are. I think the outcomes are not as intended in many cases.”

One agency chief information officer, who requested anonymity, said GAO’s findings are not surprising.

“This is a big challenge for agencies, but we are making headway,” the CIO said. “I think agencies are much more attuned to these issues than ever before because of FISMA, losing laptops and hackers. The GAO report is somewhat like a dog-bites-man story.”

Alan Paller, director at the SANS Institute, said the GAO report proves that FISMA needs to be changed.

“This is the first time Congress has authoritative support for moving away from paperwork exercises to more attack-based metrics,” Paller said. “Metrics without a tool to measure [security] is silly.”

Paller points to the secure desktop configuration for Windows as the kind of initiative agencies need to take.

“Now there is a way to figure out whether you have a secure configuration and whether it is working and whether someone has changed it,” Paller said. “Operational means a person doesn’t have to ask questions, but the system provides the data. It has to be self-monitoring, and that is what [was] missing.”

Mark Day, a former chief information security officer at the Environmental Protection Agency and now chief technology officer at McDonald Bradley, said the onus should be on inspectors general to measure agencies’ compliance with federal information security requirements and guidelines. That, he said, would make FISMA more complete.

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