From layers to assurance

The key to information security might be building better software to begin with instead of relying on outside layers, officials say.

SAN FRANCISCO — The problem of securing software continues to preoccupy Homeland Security Department and Defense Department officials, many of whom say the commonly used "layered defense" against insecure and malicious applications is not working.

Layered-defenses rely on security measures added to each level through which data passes, including networks, systems and applications. However, that approach "is riddled with holes," said Joe Jarzombek, the Pentagon's deputy director for software assurance. A better approach, said Jarzombek and others who spoke here at the RSA Conference, may be to spend more on software assurance testing and better training — perhaps even mandatory certification — of software developers.

"We want to shift the paradigm from patch management to software assurance," said Hun Kim, deputy director for policy and strategic initiatives at DHS' National Cyber Security Division.

Government interest in secure software extends beyond DHS and DOD to Capitol Hill, Jarzombek said.

As part of a new Software Assurance Initiative at DHS, department officials are working with members of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers to collect the best available knowledge of secure software development, Kim said. DHS and IEEE will then make it available free to colleges and universities for developing new courses in software assurance.

Another aspect of the software initiative, Kim said, will be to help acquisition officials buy secure software using DHS-developed standards, specifications and acquisition language for software assurance.

Kim said he hopes that everything achieved through the DHS program will have far-reaching benefits. "We're trying to raise the level of software assurance for the nation, not just DHS," he said.

DOD officials, who are working with National Security Agency officials on a variety of similar initiatives, said the lack of software assurance warrants more attention and funding than it has received. Some software products are attacked or infiltrated with malicious code even before they are shipped, Jarzombek said.

One aspect of NSA's software assurance program is investigating how software products, especially commercial products, are built. DOD's software consumers know little about "who is doing the code and what is in the code," said Daniel Wolf, director of the Information Assurance Directorate at NSA.

Lawmakers are concerned about the outsourcing of software coding overseas, but the same problem exists with domestic outsourcing, said Ron Moritz, senior vice president and chief security strategist at Computer Associates, which makes software security products. "There's no difference whether you're outsourcing to Virginia or offshore if you don't have mechanism to understand what you're getting back," he said.

Software assurance testing such as NSA officials conduct through a program known as the National Information Assurance Partnership is a proven way to improve the quality and trustworthiness of software, Wolf said. Software company officials have criticized NIAP as too time-consuming and expensive, but it has nevertheless improved software security, Wolf said.

NIAP personnel have found that between 35 percent and 45 percent of the products submitted for evaluation have security problems, which the vendors then fix, Wolf said. "We've also seen products disappear from the market" after an evaluation, he said.

But primarily because the NIAP program has drawn considerable criticism, DHS officials have commissioned the Institute for Defense Analyses to review it, Kim said.

In addition to more rigorous software assurance testing, employee training and certification may finally get the attention they deserve, said Robert Lentz, director of the Information Assurance Directorate at DOD. Employees who operate military networks are not certified for that responsibility, but Pentagon officials are going to change that, he added.

Some officials interested in software assurance think it might be a good idea if software developers had to certify their work and be held liable if software is faulty or unsafe. In disciplines such as mechanical and civil engineering, engineers must certify that a bridge they have built is safe, Wolf said. "Should we do the same in software? Where's the accountability?"

Accountability, he said, should be more than a coupon for the next software release.

NEXT STORY: Army to pick FCS system in 2006

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