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Why visibility matters

eye behind data (Titima Ongkantong/Shutterstock.com) 

When making decisions with respect to cybersecurity technologies and program funding, the federal government doesn't work like the private sector: In most cases, corporations view cybersecurity decisions as business decisions. They determine whether the purchase of, for example, a Security Incident Event Monitor will generate more or less value than other purchase proposals -- like a new marketing analytics tool or an accounting app. Then, they'll proceed based upon what they conclude. If the risk of not buying the item outweighs the projected benefits of the other items in consideration, they'll acquire it.

In contrast, government agencies must adhere to legislation such as Clinger-Cohen and the Federal Information Security Management Act, as well as oversight regulations like the Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation Program from the Department of Homeland Security. Federal leaders do not have the latitude to adopt "business case versus business case" decision-making models. In many cases cybersecurity is a budget line item or accountable program. Agencies are allocated a certain amount of funding from Congress, and are then told, "Now comply with the regulations."

What is clear, however, is that even though cybersecurity is in most cases a non-discretionary program, the government still struggles to incorporate the basic requirements of sound cybersecurity hygiene.

The Office of Management and Budget has found that three-quarters of federal agencies oversee cybersecurity programs which place them either "at risk" or at "high risk," according to the Federal Cybersecurity Risk Determination Report and Action Plan, released by OMB in May this year. "Simply put, agencies cannot detect when large amounts of information leave their networks, which is particularly alarming in the wake of some of the high-profile incidents across government and industry in recent years," according to the report.

The OMB report follows a similarly cautionary one from the Government Accountability Office released in February 2017, in which the GAO revealed that -- out of 2,500 recommendations made to agencies to improve the security of federal systems and information -- 1,000 had not been implemented. The report, "Cybersecurity: Actions Needed to Strengthen U.S. Capabilities," indicates that 20 of 23 agencies reviewed by inspectors general cited information security as a major management challenge.

More than one-half of IT leaders at civilian agencies and three of five at Department of Defense and intelligence agencies feel that they do not have the tools and resources needed to meet their security objectives, according to a May survey, "Closing the Gaps in Cybersecurity Resilience at U.S. Government Agencies." 

Agencies must get a better handle on their user behaviors, as careless and/or untrained insiders rank first among all cyber threat sources cited by 54 percent of federal government IT decision-makers and influencers, according to research from SolarWinds.

Lacking visibility, federal chief information security officers and their teams cannot "see" the extent and depth of cyber "real estate" that they manage. Regardless of which cyber investments they make, they still commit the worst possible offense in the eyes of GAO, OMB or the department's inspector general -- ignorance.

A well-documented but poorly managed program offers oversight and the opportunity to provide guidance on how improvements can be made, but if it is discovered that organizations just don't understand, or "see," the breadth and depth of their enterprise, then this is where attention will be focused and the outcomes will not be proactive.

Through readily available solutions, teams can gain enterprisewide visibility of their IT ecosystems. They will be able to observe whether user activity is properly authorized and administered. They will see who is accessing what -- and when and where they're accessing it. They can monitor whether users are making bad choices with regard to shared passwords, static/predictable passwords, suspicious links sent by unfamiliar parties, etc.

It is not possible to respond to what you cannot see. With proper visibility, you can monitor the entire cyber landscape. Then, you will be able to make risk-based decisions about where to implement your resources, by identifying where vulnerabilities exist and investing in products that will eliminate these vulnerabilities, or at least mitigate their impact.

Ultimately, government cyber professionals must still make tradeoff decisions in this process because it is unlikely they will have enough resources -- people or budget -- to cover everything. It's not pragmatic to believe agencies can "bulletproof" their enterprise. But, by evaluating which vulnerabilities, behaviors and threats represent the most significant risk, agencies can allocate resources to their biggest problems. This is what successful cyber-risk programs do. They push towards total visibility to drive smarter cybersecurity decisions.

About the Author

John Hays is Director of Federal Healthcare Solutions at Merlin International.

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