McCoy: Champion of information assurance

After 30 years in the Navy, Capt. Sheila McCoy has learned valuable lessons about managing risk rather than running from it.

But McCoy didn't know five years ago, when she began overseeing the security of the Navy Department's information systems, that her work would have a far-reaching impact on other Defense Department and civilian agencies, as well as the private sector.

As director of the information assurance team on the chief information officer's staff, McCoy developed policy and guidance for ensuring the availability and integrity of the Navy's and Marine Corps' information systems.

Last year, she also assumed responsibility for privacy policy to help the department's constituents meet legislative requirements and protect their personal information, said David Wennergren, the Navy's CIO.

McCoy's hand in shaping information technology policy did not stop there. She played a central role in the successful implementation of DOD's Common Access Card. The smart card serves as personal identification for DOD employees and contractors and enables them to enter buildings and log on securely to systems and networks. Its security features are based on public-key infrastructure (PKI) technology.

McCoy also devoted her time last year to briefing staff in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and military departments on legislative and DOD requirements related to information assurance.

After 30 years of service, McCoy retired March 1. She said looking back at her career made her realize that Dan Porter, former CIO of the Navy Department, and Wennergren, who at the time was deputy CIO, gave her many opportunities for managing risk rather than being afraid of it.

Five years ago, they asked McCoy to establish an information assurance team for the CIO office. At the three-year mark and with no replacement standing by, she stayed on. She knew information assurance was becoming an increasingly important area.

Still, it was unusual for a Navy Department officer to be in the same position for that long, she said.

In the world of increasing threats to information security, McCoy said, senior managers in many organizations want to avoid risk altogether. Sometimes they are so afraid of exposing information that they lock down systems to a degree that prevents employees from working effectively and efficiently.

Navy officials, like their counterparts in other military services, are moving toward a network-centric environment in which data becomes an essential part of the warfighting arsenal. Allowing the use of new technologies is crucial to that mission.

"You have to have risk for opportunity" to flourish, McCoy said. "The question becomes how do you say yes [to users] without taking on more risk or unknown risk?"

In the past, service officials nixed the use of wireless technology. Now, senior managers have adopted a middle-ground approach, McCoy said. They take into account the conditions under which wireless can best be deployed, why it is being used and what devices can be used.

"Risk management is never static," she said. "It's changing every day with new threats and new solutions."

No stranger to information systems and security, McCoy holds a master's degree in systems technology from the Naval Postgraduate School, with a focus on joint command, control and communications.

Before taking on her information assurance position, she served as director of information systems and CIO at the Naval Space Command. But her last job marked the first time that information assurance was a principal part of her job, she said.

The Navy's effort to create comprehensive information assurance policies and guidelines began three years ago, but most of the work was completed in 2004, said James Collins, a senior engineer with Titan and a former Navy submarine captain who has worked with McCoy.

The resulting guidelines covered everything from defense-in-depth strategies and computer network defense to how coalition forces gain access to Navy information systems, Collins said. The policy documents included all legislative and DOD requirements. McCoy also developed policies for the Navy's use of PKI technologies.

The first step in developing comprehensive policies involved updating existing written policy because much had changed since the old policy was drafted, McCoy said.

Having been involved in many security-related working groups within DOD, McCoy knew what others were working on and could apply those lessons to her work for the Navy.

Developing policies involved a lot of team building among the staff, McCoy said. For that, she had the support of senior leaders — Porter and Wennergren — who recognized that if information assurance policy was developed correctly, the service could do more with new information technologies in the future.

The teams that McCoy built are a testament to her leadership skills, Collins said. Recognizing the importance of information assurance, they worked late many evenings, he said.

McCoy had to overcome funding and staffing constraints as well as people's reluctance to venture into new technologies and embrace innovation, Wennergren said, adding that demands on her time always exceeded her availability.

Time, resources and people are always in short supply, McCoy said, and often people find it difficult to reach a consensus. "We aren't solving these problems on our own," she said. "We have to have the Marine Corps and Navy moving forward with the DOD agencies."

Colleagues say her contributions extend well beyond DOD. She worked to support a strategic alliance between the Navy and the Banking Information Technology Secretariat, helping lay the groundwork for a government/industry partnership in developing information security solutions.

Her ability to articulate the challenges and solutions of information assurance made her a popular speaker at industry conferences, Wennergren said.

"Capt. McCoy was a true information assurance champion," he said.

It doesn't appear that retirement will stop McCoy from spreading the information assurance gospel. On the day of her retirement, she moderated a panel on risk management at an e-government conference, hinting that she will probably remain involved in risk management for a while.

NEXT STORY: FISMA tightens criteria

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