Facing the bottom line

The economics of security testing are still a bit dicey. With the proliferation of worms exploiting security flaws in commercial software, agency officials can make a good case for asking vendors to submit core products for testing. But to date, most vendors have not seen a compelling reason to do so. The reason? Only a limited number of agencies have made it a priority.

It's a problem with a long history. In the 1990s, many vendors submitted products for testing based on the Orange Book security standards developed by the National Security Agency. But industry support for the standard petered out because most federal buyers showed no inclination to buy the trusted products.

This time it's the Common Criteria, a standard set of security tests developed by an international standards body. Both the national security community and the Defense Department now require security-related products to be certified. So far, though, not much has come of it.

One year after DOD adopted the standard, only a handful of vendors have had their products certified. More products are going through the process now, but not an overwhelming number.

The problem, experts say, is that for all their buying power, DOD and the intelligence community do not represent a significant enough market to justify the cost and effort of certification. Were civilian agencies to adopt the standards, they say, industry might see things differently.

Civilian agencies, though, give no sign of jumping on board, which raises serious questions about the future of the Common Criteria.

Agencies must weigh the risks of security flaws with the intangible costs of certification, including the administrative burden and a limited pool of vendors. By default, it would seem, they have decided the economics simply do not work in the Common Criteria's favor.

Security experts might dodge the issue by turning it into a chicken-or-egg paradox, saying they cannot adopt a standard which so few products support. But agencies collectively have impressive buying power. They simply have chosen not to wield it.

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