Lawmakers want stronger NASA IT security

A House measure to authorize NASA's programs for fiscal 2009 would also direct the space agency to report to Congress on the effectiveness of its network security controls.

Also, if the legislation as written becomes law, the Government Accountability Office would test NASA’s network for vulnerabilities and provide the results in a restricted report to NASA’s oversight committees. The space agency would also detail the corrective actions it has put in place to prevent such intrusions.

The House Science and Technology Committee’s Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee approved the measure May 20. The full committee is scheduled to consider the legislation June 4, a committee spokeswoman said.

Agencies already report annually to the Office of Management and Budget on how they comply with the Federal Information Security Management Act, including activities such as conducting certification and accreditation of their major systems. However, some security experts criticize FISMA compliance as a checklist exercise. FISMA merely measures whether someone has written a policy or a report, said Alan Paller, research director of SANS Institute.

“This is much better than FISMA because they are actually measuring the network’s ability to perform security missions,” he said.

Under the authorization measure, NASA would also report to the House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over the agency on how well its security controls support:

  • The network’s ability to detect and monitor access to its resources and information.

  • Authorized physical access to the network.

  • The encryption of sensitive research and mission data.

Attempts to attack agencies' systems are increasing, and the risks are clear, said Mark Udall (D-Colo.), the subcommittee's chairman. For example, GAO recently reported on weaknesses at the Tennessee Valley Authority that could disrupt the utility’s basic operations.

“For NASA, computer networks are the backbone of almost all operations and are critical to the safety of our astronauts, the success of space missions and the use of satellites,” Udall said, adding that “we must do all we can to protect these resources.”

Agencies need to determine through risk assessment the specific security controls that would block current attacks that affect their mission, Paller said. The National Institute for Standards and Technology provides guidance on FISMA, but it is too general, he said, adding that network security guidance needs to be specific.

“You have to put your money into the right controls," he said. "Generalized security policies are the same as no security policies.”

NIST has produced a risk-management framework that agencies can use to better assess priorities for their systems and information. OMB also has encouraged agencies to use a risk management approach to information security and has  initiated efforts, including reducing the number of Internet gateways through the Trusted Internet Connections and standardizing security components through shared services providers in the Information Systems Security Line of Business. Both initiatives include continuous monitoring of systems and external connections.

Federal agencies are making progress on enhancing the protection of federal information under the current FISMA framework, said Karen Evans, OMB administrator for e-government and information technology. In its latest FISMA report to Congress in March, OMB found significant improvement in agencies’ systems certification and accreditation performance and contingency and controls testing, she said.
“We are reviewing the provision in the House bill that would require two additional IT security reports as we do all provisions affecting the FISMA framework,” Evans said.

Paller said he believes that information security oversight could be included in appropriations bills.

“I think as soon as we get it in one appropriations bill, that will be the last nail that’s needed to get NIST to fix the way it implemented FISMA,” he said.

Lawmakers also receive information about the network security of the agencies that they oversee from classified briefings, Paller said.

“When they find out how badly defended the federal government is, after the classified briefings, people ask different questions,” he said.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), ranking member on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, found in the most recent report card he issues on agencies' compliance with FISMA that half of the major agencies got a C grade or lower on information security, while half earned B or above. The highest grade is an A-plus. Davis has advocated more oversight over agency information security practices, incentives for agency success and funding penalties for agencies’ poor security performance, said Brian McNicoll, a spokesman for Davis,

“With high-profile security breaches and continually sagging FISMA scores, it should come as no surprise that we’ll see more and more data security language folded into authorizing and appropriating bills,” McNicoll said.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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