Secure desktops not just for Vista

Easier security compliance

The National Institute of Standards and Technology is working on the final version of the Security Content Automation Protocol (SCAP) tool to help agencies assess and monitor PCs running Microsoft operating systems and ensure they meet the Federal Desktop Core Configuration. The tool is a set of standards that software vendors can use to meet the Federal Desktop Core Configuration.

“I think we can deliver automation to 20 percent of the controls and partial automation to the other 80 percent of them,” Tim Grance, a NIST computer scientist, said at a recent security conference.

“By using the SCAP tool, agencies will receive better and more efficient security information, and it will remove any ambiguity.”

Grance added that product vendors need to adopt the configuration standards to be SCAP-compliant.

— Jason Miller

The Office of Management and Budget has told agencies that use Microsoft Windows XP or Vista to begin using the government’s approved secure desktop configuration by February 2008, but it hinted that the Windows operating system was only the beginning of a more extensive program.

The next phase may be under way as the National Security Agency works with Apple, Sun Microsystems and Red Hat to develop secure baseline standards for those vendors’ latest operating systems. NSA has worked with Apple and Sun for years. However, for the first time, Red Hat has asked for help in securing an operating system, its Enterprise Linux 5.

“We’ve had our own hardening tips, and for this version we wanted to work with NSA since [we] have a close relationship with them already,” said Karl Wirth, Red Hat’s director of security solutions.

OMB officials said they are not involved in NSA’s effort with those companies, but some private-sector experts say the vendors’ work with NSA to develop baseline standards is similar to that which Microsoft undertook. They see those efforts as a first step toward establishing a federal secure configuration standard for those operating systems.

“Vendors who compete with Microsoft saw the White House announcement as a threat,” said Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute. “OMB was not standardizing on Microsoft and said they would talk to others to ensure their products are secure, too.”

Paller said that once NSA gives its blessing to a vendor’s product, it would make sense for non-Defense Department and intelligence agencies to follow NSA’s lead.

However, NSA’s security guidance is not mandatory for civilian agencies. The National Institute of Standards and Technology has issued security checklists, which are not standards, for some Apple, Sun and Red Hat products.

NSA worked with Sun and Apple on security for their previous releases of the Solaris 8 and 9 and Panther and Tiger operating systems, respectively. Now NSA is developing standard configurations for Sun’s Solaris 10 and Apple’s Leopard operating systems.

“NSA’s Information Assurance Directorate works with many companies to examine product security on behalf of DOD customers,” said Tony Sager, chief of vulnerability analysis and operations at the directorate.

The product security guides help NSA users make informed decisions about security and help analysts better understand emerging technologies, he said.

Bill Vass, president and chief operating officer of Sun Federal, said Sun’s work with NSA is not unusual, and he added that he wouldn’t be surprised if OMB or NIST mandated a secure baseline configurations for all Unix operating systems because Apple, Sun and Red Hat are derived from Unix.

Vass said OMB and NIST could mandate a basic Unix secure configuration standard and offer subsets for Apple, Sun, Red Hat and others.

“It is a natural evolution for NIST and OMB to say ‘use this standard,’ ”Vass said.

“The reason OMB did this on Vista is the risk and pervasiveness of those risks.”

NSA worked with NIST on the Microsoft Windows XP and Vista baselines, and it is now developing a national program to collect, automate, measure and report information technology vulnerability data, Sager said.

Sager said NSA did not analyze Microsoft’s code. However, the agency reviewed and analyzed different configuration settings, such as the number of characters in a password, to determine which ones were most secure.

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