A model for success

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

those evaluations.

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

Department CIO.

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.

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