A model for success
- By Diane Frank
- Mar 19, 2000
Information security is something of a riddle for many federal agencies.
While hacker attacks and congressional scrutiny have convinced agencies
of the importance of instilling good security practices into day-to-day
operations, they have not known where to begin.
Members of the CIO Council's security committee and other federal officials
now believe the answer could come from the field of software engineering,
in the form of a well-known though rather esoteric concept known as the
Capability Maturity Model.
The CMM, developed by the federally funded Software Engineering Institute,
has become a staple at the Defense Department, the Federal Aviation Administration
and other agencies as a way to assess an organization's overall software
engineering practices, with a focus on documented, repeatable processes
that carry over from program to program.
That is what the CIO Council hopes to bring to information security with
its Information Technology Security Maturity Framework.
"I think there's a real value in having an evaluation framework," said
Jeffrey Hunker, senior director of critical infrastructure protection at
the National Security Council. "That kind of framework as a way to measure
progress is very helpful."
Like SEI's CMM and similar projects, the security framework describes
six levels of "maturity" an agency might achieve (see box). By specifying
practices associated with each level, the framework should provide agencies
with a way to assess their security practices and a road map to improvement.
Studies show that the CMM has raised the overall quality of IT processes
in the public and private sectors, said Bill Peterson, director of software
engineering process management at the Carnegie Mellon University-based SEI.
The models give organizations a common language and specific goals to strive
for, he said.
Once organizations start using a CMM, the model becomes an obvious way
to measure one organization against another. This creates competition, which
means the average level of capability goes up, Peterson said. "There is
a fair amount of benchmarking going on," he said. "It's been demonstrated
that the program is leading to better quality."
The council's framework could give agencies these same incentives, he
said. But it also could give Congress, the Office of Management and Budget
and other administration officials a yardstick against which to measure
agencies' improvement. And public announcement of each agency's maturity
level, like Congress' public grading of agencies on their Year 2000 progress,
could push agencies to work to raise their level.
Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.), the leader of the Year 2000 grading process,
has been looking into ways to measure agencies' security process, and the
framework is one possible starting point, said a staff member. But there
are many questions to answer, including who will perform the evaluations
and how to ensure that the correct features are being measured, he said.
DOD, which requires CMM evaluations as part of some large, software engineering-related
procurements, has awarded contracts to a handful of organizations to perform
The end goal is to bring every agency up to Level 5, where they have
security programs that are continually updated and modified to meet changing
vulnerabilities. But in the short term, the committee believes every agency
should reach Level 2. Under the framework, this means having a documented
security program built on existing guidance from OMB and the National Institute
of Standards and Technology. When the framework is complete, it will include
specific steps that agencies can take to get to each level.
"The committee is working to develop specific evaluation criteria, a
checklist guide, that could be used for Level 2 as well as further definition
of Level 3," said John Gilligan, co-chairman of the committee and the Energy
Right now agencies range from Level 1 to Level 3, often with pockets of
higher levels in offices within each agency, Horn's staff member said. The
key is to find a way to spread that knowledge and expertise, he said.