Agencies get a year to set authentication needs

Agencies have until Dec. 15, 2004, to classify the authentication needs of all their major systems, using the final guidance the Office of Management and Budget released yesterday.

Federal IT managers also have until Sept. 15, 2005, to categorize all existing transactional systems.

The guidance comes five months after OMB, through the General Services Administration, issued interim regulations (Click for GCN July 10 story) asking agencies to conduct risk assessments and apply one of four assurance levels to all e-government and transaction systems.

“The guidance directs agencies to conduct e-authentication risk assessments on electronic transactions to ensure that there is a consistent approach across government,” said Josh Bolten, OMB director, in a memo to agency executives. “It also provides the public with clearly understood criteria for access to federal government services online.”

One of the major changes in the final policy is that OMB puts the onus on agencies’ business owners—such as program managers—instead of technology managers. The guidance says that business process owners hold the primary responsibility to identify assurance levels and strategies to achieve them.

Stephen Holden, an assistant professor in the Information Systems Department of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, agreed with the change.

“The draft policy from the fall, I felt, undermined OMB’s message that this is about business transformation, because it focused too much on technology,” said Holden, whose research is focused on e-government. “The new version does a much better job of clarifying the role of the business owner. The policy has moved quite a bit from the draft.”

The final guidance requires agencies to go through a five-step process to determine assurance levels:

  • Conduct a risk assessment

  • Map identified risks to assurance levels

  • Select technology based on technical guidance from the National Institute of Standards and Technology

  • Validate that the system achieves the required assurance level

  • Reassess the system to determine necessary technology enhancements.

  • The assurance levels remained primarily the same in the final guidance from the interim one. They start at Level One, where little or no confidence is needed to validate the user’s identity, and increase to Level 4, where a very high confidence of the user’s identity is required.

    Agencies still are waiting for the NIST guidance, which details how the assurance levels match to technology. When that final guidance is released, agencies will have 90 days to figure out the assurance levels of new systems, OMB said.

    But agencies could start working on the first two steps immediately, Holden said.

    “The five-step process is very clear and makes a lot of sense,” he said. “In many ways, it is harder to work on the first two steps. There is a tendency for technical people to array the technology choices and rush to pick them. But what often gets lost is the problem that needs to be solved, and what are the risks, what are the probabilities of the risks happening and what impact does it have on the system. The risk assessment puts business in front of the technology in a reasonable and thoughtful way.”

    Each level corresponds to a potential impact on the system, as described by NIST as low, moderate or high. According to NIST, low impact is limited, short-term inconvenience; moderate is serious short-term or limited long-term inconvenience; and high is severe or serious long-term inconvenience or damage to the standing or reputation of an organization or person.

    OMB also is requiring agencies to publish their chosen assurance levels on their Web sites, through the Federal Register or other means, and, beginning in 2004, report their progress in implementing this guidance in the annual E-Government Report to OMB.

    “It is hard to overestimate how important this policy is to agency e-government managers,” Holden said. “There is all kinds of market research that indicates one of the reasons the public is slow to adopt e-government are concerns over privacy and security. E-authentication clearly has to be an important facet to provide assurances to the public that the government is taking care of sensitive data. This policy is important for e-government projects to take the next step toward transactions.”

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