Deal to set government security standard

Agencies can drastically improve the security and management of their Microsoft software at no cost if they participate in a Bush administration initiative to deliver common configurations of the company’s products.

The initiative, which Air Force officials are spearheading, could start later this year after the service conducts a test of the process this spring. The Office of Management and Budget will release guidelines soon for using the Air Force model for distributing Microsoft software and managing patches.

“Discussions are under way to expand a recent standardized security management cybersecurity initiative between the Air Force and Microsoft so that the results can be shared and applied in other government agencies at no additional cost for software if they are using the same product baseline as the Air Force,” according to a statement from OMB’s Office of E-Government and Information Technology.

Microsoft officials say the agreement is a chance for agencies to establish enterprise asset and security patch management of the company’s products.

“This demonstrates that Microsoft is willing to step up with a customer in one of the most demanding environments in the world and engage with them to make sure our products meet the mission of government,” said Curt Kolcun, general manager of Microsoft Federal. “We want to make sure our customer is satisfied with our products.”

Security experts said the agreement ends five years of debate among government, industry and Microsoft officials on how best to secure and configure the company’s products.

“They all agreed on what is a minimal, secure configuration for Windows,” said Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, a security training firm. “That’s a huge change. The lack of that is the pain that we’ve seen in the security of Windows.”

“The agreement shows that vendors and users can agree on how systems should be configured before they are delivered,” said Clint Kreitner, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Internet Security, a nonprofit organization that works with vendors and users to reduce disruptions in e-commerce.

Windows XP, for example, comes with hundreds of security settings turned off by default because they can cause applications to operate more slowly or not at all. Customers typically install the software as it

is, making it vulnerable to hackers who know how to take advantage of the default settings.

“The Air Force pioneered the use of procurement to get the vendor to deliver securely configured systems,” Kreitner said.

Air Force officials signed two Microsoft consolidation contracts last year to streamline the service’s software and support contracts with the company.

The six-year, $500 million deal includes an agreement with Dell to consolidate and standardize 525,000 Microsoft PC software licenses.

It also includes an agreement with Microsoft to deliver products built to a standard security configuration and supply a patch management capability during the next three years.

Under the agreement, the Air Force will participate in Microsoft’s Secure Update Validation Program, which is open to only a limited number of customers. The program’s participants receive patches for the company’s products for testing before they are released to the public. Service officials plan to distribute and install the patches on the Air Force’s computers within 48 hours of their release.

Air Force officials will provide four common configurations of Microsoft Windows and other applications, including server software, for use servicewide to improve security, standardization and operation. OMB officials want other federal agencies to use those configurations so they can take advantage of the Air Force’s testing and patching process.

To participate in the initiative, agencies must own Microsoft products, but they don’t need an enterprise agreement. The only revenue the company could derive from the arrangement involves getting services contracts with some of the agencies, though Microsoft officials expect most of that work to go to systems integrators, Kolcun said.

The National Security Agency, the intelligence agency that makes codes, breaks codes and eavesdrops on enemies’ communications, will play a visible role in the governmentwide effort.

“NSA provides information assurance technical guidance and security support services to OMB and the executive branch, departments and agencies,” said Dan Wolf, director of NSA’s Information Assurance Directorate, in a statement. “There are a number of new information assurance initiatives currently in the planning stages at OMB.”

The Homeland Security Department will help coordinate the effort. DHS and Air Force officials will make the standard configurations available to other software providers so they can test and certify that their products perform correctly with the secure systems.

“This agreement, with support from DHS, advances the goals of the president’s National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace to reduce and remediate software vulnerabilities — Priority II,” an OMB official said. “The agreement also reflects the President’s Management Agenda goals to expand e-government by establishing governmentwide enterprise software agreements and related initiatives.”

Security pipeline

Officials at the White House, Homeland Security Department, National Institute for Standards and Technology, National Security Agency, Defense Information Systems Agency, Air Force and Microsoft have agreed on how to improve the security and management of the company’s products governmentwide. This is how the program will work:

  • The Air Force, working with DHS, NIST, NSA and DISA, will establish four standard Microsoft desktop computer and server configuration settings.
  • The Air Force will install and use those settings servicewide.
  • The Air Force will test Microsoft security patches and share the results with DHS.
  • The Air Force will make the configurations settings available to DHS, which will share them with agencies.
  • DHS will provide patch distributions and vulnerability alerts to agencies.

    Source: Office of Management and Budget

  • NEXT STORY: Security through layers

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