ODNI changes FISMA focus

Intell agency takes the lead in making reporting secondary to monitoring

Possible next phase

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is involved in an initiative that could lead to expanding the government’s Information Systems Security Line of Business to include certification and accreditation (C&A) services.

Sharon Ehlers, ODNI’s lead official for C&A, said the agency joined a working group in May to study the cost savings and efficiencies possible by standardizing the C&A process and potentially outsourcing it.

“We are identifying models and what are the best ways to move forward with them,” Ehlers said.

Dale Meyerrose, ODNI’s chief information officer, said the impetus for the working group came from ongoing collaborative efforts by the intelligence community and the Defense Department to standardize the C&A process.

“Other agencies want to leverage our work because they see the goodness of it, and it makes them better without having to go through the entire [development] process,” he said.

— Jason Miller

Critics often fault agencies’ implementation of the Federal Information Security Management Act for focusing too much on writing reports and not enough on security monitoring. However, that criticism is heard less often as agencies take advantage of ways to automate their FISMA reporting requirements and focus instead on real-time security monitoring.

The Office of the National Director of Intelligence is one of the agencies riding that wave. ODNI officials are focused on real-time vulnerability assessments, changing business processes, seeking additional tools to secure their networks, and providing better education and training for systems developers, administrators and program managers.

Officials say they want to make FISMA’s certification and accreditation (C&A) requirement a dynamic process instead of a snapshot of system security for publication in a report.

“A lot of what the security folks have been doing has been more administrative, but we are pushing to [have C&A] be more of an engineering staff function, and that has helped secure our systems a lot,” said Sharon Ehlers, ODNI’s lead official for C&A. “We always are doing continuous monitoring, but our future state is one where we can understand our security posture in real time and have the tools to have total insight into everything that is going on.”

Experts in the private and public sectors who recognize ODNI’s efforts also give credit for the shift in FISMA priorities to the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. Both agencies provide automated FISMA reporting tools to other agencies as part of the Office of Management and Budget’s Information Systems Security Line of Business initiative.

“We are seeing a fundamental shift from soft writing skills to hard technical skills,” said Alan Paller, research director at the SANS Institute and a frequent critic of what he terms the ineffectual paperwork required under FISMA. “Agencies are better off measuring their network security than writing reports,” he said.

ODNI is testing Justice’s Cyber Security Assessment and Management toolkit and working with the Defense Department to revise C&A policy for the intelligence community and DOD. Dale Meyerrose, ODNI’s associate director of national intelligence and chief information officer, said he expects the revised policy to be published by Dec. 31.

“The new policy is just the first step and may not be the most important,” Meyerrose said.
ODNI has targeted six areas for changing the way the intelligence community secures its information systems and networks. “First, we have to engineer the process,” Meyerrose said. “There are certain parts that are repeatable and lend themselves to being automated.”

Another area is to standardize the way agencies test for system security. “It used to take months to test a system. Now it can be done in weeks or days,” Ehlers said. “Integrating security in the life cycle of the system helps get them up and running more quickly.”

Meyerrose said the objective of proposed policy changes is to make the C&A process an integral part of the system life cycle rather than a snapshot that’s taken every three years. “FISMA reporting has been the desired outcome” in the past, but that priority was wrong, he said. “FISMA reporting must be a byproduct of us securing our networks and understanding the risks we are willing to accept.”

Glenn Ballard, director of information security at G&B Solutions, said many of the company’s federal customers have started automating portions of the C&A process. In doing so, agencies are saving about 20 percent on C&A costs and are improving their security controls, he said.

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