Thompson: Setting the standard

OMB’s secure desktop configuration mandate is a good first step toward improved security

The recently issued Office of Management and Budget policy memo on Windows desktop configuration standards is raising hopes — and a few eyebrows — at federal agencies and software companies.

The eagerly anticipated directive provides federal agencies with a common set of clear guidelines for purchasing new Windows
desktops. This is great news, especially because the directive can ensure much better desktop security in the federal government.

For years, government agencies have grappled with regulations aimed at enhancing information and system protection by establishing baseline configurations for hardening desktop security. In practice, however, implementation was hit-or-miss at best, and compliance was rarely required or verified.

By requiring that federal agencies adopt a specified standard security configuration for their Windows desktops within a set time period and then enforcing the directive through procurement rules, OMB has put teeth in a critical security policy. Such standardization will also yield significant cost savings by obviating the need for individual agencies to test a seemingly endless assortment of applications and configurations for their unique environments.

But the directive has also raised a number of concerns. Can agencies that prefer a higher level of security than the standard mandates use best-of-breed tools to better protect their Windows desktops? Will agencies that do so violate the OMB mandate?

Not to worry, says the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which along with OMB recognizes the implementation issues surrounding the directive. Both agencies are working to help federal agencies not only comply with the directive but also keep their operating environments as secure as possible.

The standard desktop security configuration set forth by OMB includes the security features built into the Windows operating system, but agencies can opt for third-party security software. Agencies can continue to make business decisions that best meet their security needs without fear of being considered noncompliant.

Even as the OMB directive makes important strides, it does not address some key security concerns, such as data on lost or stolen laptops. Government agency workers are more mobile than ever, and more sensitive information is stored on laptop PCs — often in violation of government security policies.

To protect this and other valuable information, organizations must implement security measures that go beyond the OMB mandate. Such measures might include encryption on all such devices and data classification solutions that protect sensitive information from exposure on vulnerable systems in the first place. An especially useful class of tools automatically enforces security policies on all systems that attempt to connect to agency networks.

OMB’s new desktop configuration directive aims to improve information security and reduce overall information technology operating costs. By adopting the security configurations stipulated in the directive, federal agencies have a rare opportunity to deploy secure systems quickly and efficiently. The mandate is a promising start to transforming how the federal government safeguards its information infrastructure.

Thompson is chief information officer at Symantec.

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