CIO Council official slams NIST's security response

A top official with the CIO Council this month called for the council to take over control of a civilian computer security response team from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and eventually turn it over to the private sector.

Mark Boster, deputy chief information officer at the Justice Department and co-chairman of the CIO Council security committee, said the Federal Computer Incident Response Capability (FedCIRC) is not meeting CIO requirements for responding to agency computer security emergencies. NIST launched FedCIRC in late 1996 to help agencies identify potential security weaknesses in computer systems and recover from electronic attacks.

Boster, speaking at a meeting of NIST's Computer System Security and Privacy Advisory Board (CSSPAB), said agencies need an "overarching governmentwide approach" to security, not a separate entity for Defense and another for civilian agencies, as is the case with FedCIRC. He also said services should include a 24-hour point of contact for security incidents and real-time response to such incidents. Boster further suggested that services should be divided into core operations services and ancillary services such as forensics and threat analysis. FedCIRC charges one lump subscription fee for core and ancillary services.

"The FedCIRC...is not meeting the needs of the federal government," he said. "My technical people feel there's some value here, but it's not necessarily meeting all our requirements. NIST has had its opportunity. The CIO Council is going to rise to the occasion. The CIO Council is going to be the driving force in security. I am not going to trust my security operations to NIST."

As an example of how FedCIRC does not adequately respond to security breaches, Boster said the group was not helpful when DOJ's World Wide Web site was hacked in 1996. "At two o'clock in the morning, I didn't know who the hell to call," he said. "If we can fix the operational side of this...this thing is going to take off."

However, Marianne Swanson, FedCIRC's program manager, said DOJ subscribes to FedCIRC, and she noted that when DOJ's Web page was hacked, FedCIRC responded along with the National Security Agency and the FBI. "We did offer to help when they had their Web page incident," Swanson said. "They didn't take it. They did not want our assistance."

Nevertheless, Boster said that while the ideal for federal agencies would be to take proactive steps to protect their systems from being exploited, the government is "years away" from being able to rely on defensive measures for information technology security.

For now, agencies need "ghostbusters" who can quickly stabilize agency systems that have been illegally tampered with, collect evidence and return these systems to operational status, he said. The best solution, he added, would be for the CIO Council to be in charge of an operational emergency response function that would consist of a core group of vendors who work on a fee-for-service basis.

The CIO Council is also examining an approach that would allow emergency response capability to be provided as a General Services Administration schedule purchase.

The CIO Council has begun to investigate funding alternatives for FedCIRC, which received $3.6 million in 1996 in start-up funding from the Government Information Technology Services Board. Those funds will allow it to continue operating until September. According to FedCIRC's November 1997 business plan, the group requires $3 million for fiscal 1998, with an increase of $1 million in each of the next four years.

After hearing Boster's proposal, the CSSPAB passed a resolution recommending that NIST continue to be a core provider for emergency response capabilities. "NIST is the appropriate coordinating agency due to its blend of independence, credibility and knowledge...and its legislated responsibilities related to security of nonclassified federal information," the March 5 resolution noted.

Timothy Grance, NIST's manager of systems and network security, said he thinks NIST should have a large leadership role in how a FedCIRC transition would take place. He pointed to the fact that FedCIRC has grown to 50 members devoted to civilian agency security response.

"We're not just a bunch of policy wonks that write high-minded rules," Grance said. "We're having this discussion because we created this, because we led it. I believe there will be a continuation of FedCIRC."

Swanson said FedCIRC has been successful, citing the increasing number of incidents that the program handles every day. Between October 1996 and October 1997, FedCIRC handled 244 security incidents involving government Web sites. For the first quarter of this year, the team handled 159 incidents.

As for the group's funding difficulties, FedCIRC has had to compete with the Year 2000 problem and is not winning the battle, Swanson said. A few federal agencies signed up for FedCIRC's subscription-based services, but FedCIRC teams respond to any federal agency's call for help during a security crisis, Swanson said

FedCIRC officials are working with the CIO Council and GSA to devise an updated operations plan that will be presented to the CIO Council next month.

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