Buy vs. build to reduce insider threats

Shutterstock image: software developer. 

There is no arguing that cybersecurity is a huge concern for the public, industry and government alike. The general consensus is that we need to be doing more, but we also need to be doing something different.

The federal government and its agencies spend a lot of money on cybersecurity. The 2017 federal fiscal budget for information security was $19 billion. In recent years, a single cybersecurity contract has cost up to $1 billion. These contracts are largely awarded to federal contractors so that they can build custom solutions for agencies. And there is no lack of research pointing to the fact that the government pays contractors far more than it pays its own employees. All of this spending on cybersecurity could actually be weakening the government’s security posture.

Insider threats remain a great concern for government agencies. It isn’t always the whistleblowers or deliberate attacks we hear about in the news. In many cases, innocent behaviors can be just as threatening. Even simple actions like employees connecting to insecure networks, clicking on "bad" links, or hosting sensitive information in public places can pose a significant threat to an agency. And, whether intentional or accidental, federal agencies recognize the threat. According to Bloomberg Government, agencies could commit more than $1 billion in fiscal 2017 to insider threat countermeasures.

Some agencies believe they are better off building their IT solutions in house. Unfortunately, this makes them vulnerable to insider threats. This is particularly true when implementing open source solutions. Agencies or their contractors tend to take the free code available to anyone and build their solution on top of it rather than buy the commercially-supported version. As such, often projects are big, take a long time, cost a lot of money and involve a lot of people.

Herein lies the problem. In this particular way, insider threat is an issue of probability; there is more likely to be an insider threat if 1,000 people are working on a project than if 10 people are.

The federal government has become a key member of the open source community. In 2016 the White House encouraged agencies to use open source technology and provided guidance to help them do so. And for good reason: open source solutions fortify government missions, provide better access to data and feature superior security controls to proprietary solutions.

This is particularly true for commercially backed open source projects, e.g. those available off the shelf and fully supported by a commercial entity. In commercial open source projects agencies have the option of waiting to get the latest version, which means it would have gone through a thorough security review. Commercial organizations that distribute and support open-source technology have employees that are dedicated members of the open-source community conducting these reviews. The software agencies may not have today’s latest innovations, but they will be tested, verified and as stable as proprietary offerings. For example, while the Apache Hadoop open source software is continually being updated, my firm regularly distributes updated versions of its Hadoop distribution that have been thoroughly tested and integrated with the rest of the stack.

Users of commercially backed open source solutions get the best of both worlds -- the value and benefits of using open source technology with the option of paying for commercial support, while knowing that the source is stable and secure. Deploying open source software that is distributed and supported by a commercial vendor is the safest and most secure way to be successful. And it is still a fraction of the cost of a custom-built solution.

In addition to the cost benefits, open source technology can help agencies save money in other areas. When leveraging commercially supported open source software, government agencies can rely on the distributor's ability to quickly address issues. This allows agencies' teams to focus on the mission rather than administrative overhead and development.

Commercially supported open source has one other feature the contractor-implemented open source doesn't -- economies of scale. Because the majority of financial support for commercially supported software comes from the private sector and not the government, cost savings over the lifetime of a supported feature are massive. Though the government may be the first to request or introduce a software feature, when it's commercially supported those private sector companies co-fund the software O&M. Whenever a major bank adopts the same software the government uses, they both benefit from those advances. But government is one funding contributor among many, saving taxpayers a great deal of money.

Government agencies have a fiscal and security responsibility to the public. If government agencies want to keep up with the latest technology trends and stay ahead of security threats, they are going to have to move to newer technologies and approaches. Commercially backed open source technology allows them to be safe, efficient and innovative. And the ability to buy a commercially supported open source solution rather than build reduces the odds of insider threats by decreasing the number of people with access to agency data and IT infrastructure.

About the Author

Rob Morrow is Public Sector CTO at Cloudera.

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