Fountain: More than a grade

The Federal Information Security Management Act’s objectives count for more than good or bad grades

The security grades that show how well agencies meet the standards of the Federal Information Security Management Act have done a great job of increasing awareness of the importance of securing our government’s vital information assets.

Victoria Proctor, a staff member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said grades are a way to measure progress, and they get the attention of senior agency leaders.

However, the objectives of FISMA are more important than good and bad report cards. FISMA is about ensuring that information systems are secure and ready to enable mission objectives. Ron Ross, senior computer scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said people who want to attack government systems don’t care about an agency’s FISMA grade. Their objective is to hack the systems.

Good FISMA grades are important, but FISMA should be foremost about securing information systems. Organizations can protect information assets only if they are committed to creating a sustainable information security program. Compliance with FISMA requirements is the benefit and result of good information security practices. Organizations that view FISMA simply as a paperwork “check the box” exercise they must go through to pass an audit will continue to have systems that are vulnerable and insecure. FISMA is about establishing and implementing a risk management framework and security controls, followed by testing,monitoring and reporting on the program’s effectiveness.

Implementing a good security program requires more than deploying technology and filling binders with paperwork. Information security must be an integral part of an organization’s culture and operational framework.

In every organization in which security is a priority, you find:
  • Committed leaders. Leaders must commit to protecting information assets and agencies need to break old habits. Leaders also need resources and time to implement changes.
  • Continuous improvement.. Information security must be viewed as a continuous process, not as a point in time. FISMA compliance should be seen as the means to achieve an effective information security program, not as an endpoint.
  • Broad awareness.With ever-changing threats and shifting interpretations of requirements, even knowledgeable security professionals find it difficult to stay current. Organizations should institute continuing security education and awareness programs.
  • Independent validation. Organizations need to create a continuing program to test their policies and security controls. Enemies continue to pose serious threats, but trusted employees also can threaten the safety of information assets, either inadvertently or intentionally. The actions of uneducated users create significant vulnerabilities.
  • Measuring and reporting.Metrics provide the visibility and accountability necessary for success. Organizations should establish a baseline and report on significant performance indicators that demonstrate progress.

The stakes are high. Agencies must look beyond grades and think of FISMA as a call to action and an opportunity to protect their information assets by implementing a sustainable information security program.

Fountain is president and chief executive officer of SecureInfo, which provides information assurance solutions.

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