IT honchos call for better patching systems

FedCIRC Patch Authentication and Dissemination Capability

Agencies need to improve the way they patch their systems and networks to keep up with the shrinking cycle between the discovery of vulnerabilities and the exploitation of them, officials said this week.

Discoveries of security vulnerabilities in software are increasing in number every month. In the last two years, the time period for attacks based on major vulnerabilities has shrunk from months to weeks, said Robert Dacey, director for information security issues at the General Accounting Office. He testified yesterday before the House Government Reform Committee's Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census Subcommittee.

Vendors usually make patches available quickly once someone discovers a vulnerability, but it takes time for agencies to test and apply those fixes on thousands of systems. "Given these increasing risks, effective patch management systems have become critical," Dacey said.

For example, about 1,000 federal systems were affected last month by the Blaster worm and its variant, even though Microsoft patches had been available since mid-July. That was one of the quickest vulnerability-to-exploit timelines, and the window continues to shrink, experts said.

At this point, 47 agencies have signed up to use the Federal Computer Incident Response Center's Patch Authentication and Dissemination Capability, said Larry Hale, director of FedCIRC, which is now part of the Homeland Security Department's National Cyber Security Division. Many of those agencies are still testing the service, which pushes out notice of security patches based on each agency's submitted infrastructure profile.

FedCIRC wants to modify the service's contract to make it more useful for agencies. The vision for the service includes developing an automatic download and application process, Hale said.

The Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002 requires agencies to keep FedCIRC informed about their progress in applying new patches, but there is no automatic reporting process, said Norm Lorentz, chief technology officer at the Office of Management and Budget.

FedCIRC has no way to automatically determine anything beyond how many times a patch has been downloaded through the dissemination capability. It is not a good metric because a single patch can be used for thousands of systems, Hale said.

"You can't tell how many computers have been inoculated by a single download, but it's the best thing we've got," Hale said.

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