Coping with the security puzzle

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Outsourcing information security functions is not a new concept, but as the threats grow more complex, vendors are offering solutions tailored to a federal agency's needs—from simple assessment and assistance to complete management of a security shop.

In the past, managed security services often entailed an agency outsourcing the management of its firewall—more device management than anything else, with the vendor checking logs and making sure nothing got into a network that was not supposed to. But as agencies do more and more business via the Internet, they are discovering that they do not have the staff, resources or experience necessary to cope with an increasingly complicated security environment.

"It's just getting too complex for existing staff to handle," said Ken Ammon, chief executive officer of Netsec, a Herndon, Va.-based information, security company.

The Justice Department's Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, which is just now bringing in Netsec to monitor the intrusion-detection systems at 235 offices, took a look at the amount of work involved in analyzing log files and discovered the resource shortage quickly.

"The biggest thing is that you have hundreds of local-area networks, thousands of nodes, you're going to get a steady stream of information coming down the pipe and you need network geeks sitting down the line to analyze it all," said Jim Hopson, computer security manager for the U.S. Attorneys office.

They thought about keeping the analysis function in-house, "but we estimated that we would have to hire between six and eight network engineers to man the systems seven days a week," he said.

Firewall management is still a part of most managed security services, but now companies such as Netsec offer a wide range of solutions including the complete management of network security.

The Netsec suite of services, launched late last month after a little more than two years of work with federal agencies to determine their security needs, includes three offerings: analysis of vulnerabilities; periodic assessment and testing; and real-time management of all firewalls, intrusion-detection systems (IDS) and virtual private network (VPN) connections.

The use of those types of services have been encouraged by the Federal Computer Incident Response Center, the central security center for civilian agencies. FedCIRC is developing a contract for agencies seeking to procure managed security services. FedCIRC's aim is to improve how agencies report to the center so that it can obtain a governmentwide view of security incidents.

The lowest level of Netsec service—network intelligence—is intended for agencies that already have experienced security personnel in place and are looking for help staying on top of new vulnerabilities and patches. Netsec analysts assess the agency's system architecture, hardware and software, then help the agency bring its systems up to the security levels mandated by agency and governmentwide policies. The agency's security managers continue to receive updates from Netsec via a personalized, secure Web portal. Based on the agency's security baseline, the company provides security alerts and software patches and keeps the managers abreast of industry trends. The security managers can also use the Web portal to ask the analysts questions, such as how a proposed change to the network will affect security, said Netsec Director Jerry Harold.

The midlevel service—information assurance—is designed for the majority of agencies, which often have an information technology staff that can stay on top of security matters but don't have a great deal of in-depth security expertise. At this level, Netsec provides periodic risk checks, internal and external security assessments, and penetration testing. These can be performed at random intervals or in anticipation of an audit, and reports can be tailored for technical personnel or for agency administrators, who need a more general outline of the problems.

This level of security management includes Netsec's Emergency Response, with investigative analysts ready to help an agency IT staff respond to a specific security incident, such as a Web site defacement or a more serious server penetration.

At the highest level of service, Netsec adds around-the-clock management of an agency's security devices. Logs from an agency's firewalls, IDS and VPNs are automatically monitored for anomalous events and are checked against the agency's policy. Incidents are forwarded to Netsec personnel for further analysis, and anything indicating a security risk generates a report, an alert or even a response by Netsec operators, depending on the level of potential harm.

At this level, Netsec still uses the Web portal for all reporting, but analysts from the company's network security operations center can also be located on-site at an agency when the level of security is of special concern. The company is taking this tack for several of its government clients, which, besides the Justice Department, include the Air Force, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Communications Commission.

"The objective of our solution is not to take away control but to enable better control," Harold said.

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