NASA's new FISMA approach and what it means for you

Jerry Davis, NASA's deputy CIO for IT security, discusses his agency's break from the paper-based process used to measure IT security.

This year, NASA officials won't have to go through a traditional paper-based process for recertifying existing systems as compliant with security requirements, according to a notice from the agency's information technology office.

The edict is a significant break with the way agencies typically have measured their systems' security and, if other agencies follow NASA's lead, it could have governmentwide implications.   

Agencies are required to get their systems certified and accredited under the Federal Information Security Management Act. However, critics say the paper-based reports that agencies have typically completed to meet those requirements amount to costly, time-consuming, snap-shots of security.

Last month the Obama administration announced new standards for agency reporting under FISMA as part of an effort to get agencies to shift from paper-based reports to real-time monitoring of systems. Citing those new instructions, NASA’s Deputy Chief Information Officer for IT Security Jerry Davis sent a memo May 18 that said the agency will not generally require leaders to recertify existing systems with the paper-based process.

Davis wrote that NASA is developing a new program for the security authorization proces based on continuous monitoring, automated tools and reducing paperwork. However, new systems or those which have undergone significant changes will still have to go through the standard certification and accreditation process until the new process is in place.

The C&A process that NASA plans to put in place amounts to changing a bureaucratic process to one that's focused on risk management. NASA hopes to have it in place for fiscal 2011, Davis told FCW.

Davis said the thinking behind the shift is that once a system is certified and accredited it should immediately be continuously monitored using tools that the agency already has, rather than hiring someone three years later to come in and look at the controls that are in place on existing systems. 

“Security is still going to be done. Certification and accreditation will still be done, but the way we do it is going to change significantly and the frequency of it will change,” he said. “Instead of every three years, you’re really going to be doing it, in a sense, on like a weekly or monthly basis, you’re always going to be looking at those controls and adjusting them for changes."

FCW.com spoke with Davis about the new guidance and what it would mean for NASA's 627 IT systems that do everything from control launches to handle back-office processing functions. Here are some additional portions of that interview, edited for length and clarity:

FCW.com: What led you to release this memo, and what was the thought process behind where you are going?

Jerry Davis: A lot of it had to do with timing. .. You have at least six or seven different cybersecurity bills going through Congress, you had [the Office of Management and Budget] with [Federal CIO] Vivek Kundra trying to change things for the better and getting away from this paper-based activity.

The other side it that really drove it is that NASA was at a point where three years ago we had certified and accredited systems, and the requirement is that you have to do it every three years or when there is a significant change. Well, our three year [certification expires] in a few months, and I just thought it was the perfect opportunity for system owners to save money by not doing this large paper process that really at the end of the day doesn’t provide much benefit. And I'd like to see the money that they would have spent on doing this paper process, put it back into their programs and their projects and get back to the mission that NASA has in front of it.

Timing had a lot to do with it, and doing what’s right also had a lot to do with it. FISMA was very good when it came out at getting everybody’s focus on security and getting the focus on C&A, but we have to evolve and we haven't evolved in the last 10 years or so as it relates to threats and attacks and that sort of thing. So we’re trying to evolve and this is our first step forward.

FCW.com: Can you tell us a little bit about the automated controls that you’ve been developing?

JD: The continuous monitoring activity is really just a system that collects security information, tools that we already had that collects information about systems and security controls on that system. For instance, we have things like patch management where we can scan all of our system to make sure they have latest and most critical patches. We have vulnerability management systems that look for common vulnerabilities in those same systems and those applications, and things like configuration.

What we do is we take all that information and basically crunch it up into a database and it produces a score, a risk score, that we can produce back for those system owners to tell them what their risk score is for their system based on looking at common controls [and] security configurations with tools that we already had. We’re just bringing it all together now for it to make sense.

FCW.com: So your three-year cycle for recertifying systems was coming up this year?

JD: Exactly; it was coming up in September of this year and I just couldn’t see NASA spending the money to go through this process of looking at controls [for which] the posture will change ten minutes after they’ve looked at them.

FCW.com: How much money would it have cost to recertify the system controls this year with the paper process, and how much do you think you will save with this new approach?

JD: We know for a fact that in 2007, for these systems, we spent somewhere close to $12 million, and that was just to have the contractors come in an assess the controls for that four- or five-day period. That does not include the dollar amount that system owners spend having someone sit at a desk and type up paperwork to do the system security plan.

[When] we start adding in the support, contractors that help support that process, [the cost] could easily double. We suspect that it’s at least $20 million or so we could end up coming close to saving.

FCW: What has the response been like your memo? Have you heard from other chief information officers? Have you heard from OMB and Vivek Kundra?

JD: Not directly [from Kundra]. We know that he has the memo, we know that OMB has a favorable light on this because we’re doing exactly what was mentioned in the FISMA guidance and in [Kundra’s] testimony to Congress back in March.

From the field, from my counterparts, I’ve got nothing but kudos from everywhere, from places I used to work to my counterparts at other agencies. And we’re getting kudos from the Hill, from Congress ... I'm on tap go to and brief two congressional senators' staff over the next week or so because they said they believe [what we're doing] is the right move, and they want to hear what we plan on doing going forward and how we came to making this decision.

FCW: Do you get the impression from your colleagues that other departments and agencies might soon follow suit?

JD: I’ve gotten positive word from a couple of agencies that say they’re following suit. They may not be as vocal about it as NASA was, but they are going to follow suit. I think it was a catalyst that a lot of people needed to get out of the mire of paperwork that they’re in today.

 

NEXT STORY: Recommended reading

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.