How to make continuous security monitoring work

Improving cyber defenses with real-time awareness takes an investment in planning and new capabilities.

From the start, some CIOs have harbored nagging doubts about the effectiveness of the Federal Information Security Management Act. After all, does the rearview-mirror perspective on security that the now 10-year-old law requires really protect an agency from the latest security threats and future vulnerabilities?

The Office of Management and Budget and Homeland Security Department are tackling those concerns with calls for agencies to continuously monitor security-related information across the enterprise, including near-real-time oversight of hardware, software and services to uncover breaches as they’re unfolding.

Although many critics of FISMA’s old paperwork-heavy approach praise the move, continuous monitoring is proving difficult to implement, especially at large agencies with complex IT infrastructures. For example, OMB reported in March that only seven of 24 agencies are more than 90 percent compliant with FISMA and cited continuous monitoring management among the biggest problem areas. 

The challenges are many, ranging from cataloging all the IT resources that must be constantly monitored for security problems to identifying the right tools and processes to quickly analyze oceans of firewall logs and other voluminous data to spot threats. For now, agency IT managers don’t have any easy, turnkey solutions to rely on to layer the additional protection of continuous monitoring practices over existing security strategies.  

Why it matters

Continuous monitoring promises to elevate FISMA regulations from checkbox items on compliance audits to something that better protects agencies against a spectrum of threats, from opportunistic hackers to advanced persistent threats of highly organized or state-sponsored attackers.

Federal agencies recognize the value. The U.S. Capitol Police is two years into its continuous monitoring efforts, and so far, it’s encouraged by the results.

“We can see what’s happening on our network right now, and we can get the right people and the right tools in place at a critical event,” said Richard White, the U.S. Capitol Police's chief information security officer. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room. You have to respond fast, you have to respond accurately, and you have to be sure that once you’ve responded the incident is mitigated.”

But in a time of severe budget constraints, IT executives don’t have anything like a blank check for new investments, even for something as important as security. That’s why some early success stories are noteworthy. Federal Computer Week's sister publication Government Computer News reported that continuous monitoring at the State Department succeeded on two fronts: It lessened the highest risk threats by 90 percent in 2009 while simultaneously reducing certification and accreditation costs by 62 percent.

The fundamentals

Even with early success stories and a growing list of best practices, continuous monitoring means IT executives still require extensive preparations, new strategies for using existing IT resources and often investments in new technologies — all of which makes continuous monitoring a long-term project that requires a modular approach to implementation.

The first step is a comprehensive audit of an agency's IT environment, something that security managers said can take at least a year to complete. Agencies can automate much of the auditing with commercial tools such as Microsoft Visio and NetworkView, which scan environments for available resources.

But part of the challenge is the level of detail that’s required. When DHS started the process 18 months ago, it did more than identify all the computers, operating systems, applications, storage systems and networking gear running across the department. It drilled down to see how each agency logged IT activities, handled patch management and performed vulnerability scans.

“We were looking at 1,200 data feeds across the organization,” said Emery Csulak, deputy CISO at DHS.

The agency has since reduced the number to about 400 feeds by culling redundancies and streamlining systems.

Although time-consuming, asset audits identify what resources an agency needs to monitor, and just as importantly, they show what oversight capabilities are already in place.

“A lot of people think they have to go out and buy a specific continuous monitoring product,” said Angela Orebaugh, a fellow at Booz Allen Hamilton. “They may be unaware that many of the practices that are involved at the actual data and tool levels, including configuration management tools and vulnerability management, are already in place.”

The trick is expanding data gathering for some individual systems and departments to an enterprisewide perspective, experts say.

Next, agencies need programs to aggregate the steady flow of information and analyze it quickly enough for a rapid response. Some agencies are turning to security information and event management (SIEM) applications to collect the data feeds into a consolidated view and identify the highest risks that require the most attention. 

“If I wanted to pay attention to every single alert, I would look at the raw sys logs, the firewall application logs, and data from the intrusion detection and all of the other security devices,” White said. “Having the SIEM boil up the critical events helps us avoid wasting time on low-impact events.”

Commercial tools include Hewlett-Packard ArcSight, RSA enVision and Tenable Network Security.

However, some agencies resist commercial SIEM products in favor of a dedicated security database and in-house reporting tools to slice and dice information. “We didn’t want to just buy a tool and try to jam our data into it,” Csulak said.

DHS filters the event information based on a risk-scoring system that helps identify the types of attacks that pose the biggest risks. “We look at the indicators that are the best signifiers of those threats, and then we make sure we are focusing our energy on those pieces rather than the universe of possibilities,” Csulak said.

IT executives have two models for implementing their own risk-scoring systems: the State Department’s iPost and the Continuous Asset Evaluation, Situational Awareness and Risk Scoring reference architecture developed by DHS and other agencies.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology's Security Content Automation Protocol addresses another piece of the puzzle. It offers a collection of specifications designed to make sure all the various automation tools used for continuous monitoring can work together.

“Applications that are SCAP-compliant can integrate seamlessly and use formats that are not proprietary,” said Joseph Beal, security program manager at Creative Computing Solutions, a systems integrator. “Proprietary standards make it difficult to leverage data from your [intrusion-detection system] or push the information to your ticketing system. All those systems have to be integrated.” 

Finally, agencies should consider how their long-term cloud computing plans, especially for public clouds, mesh with continuous monitoring requirements.

“If you outsource your data into a contractor’s data center, you have to update the contracts with clauses that ask for asset inventories, security configuration compliance and vulnerability scanning,” said Daniel Galik, CISO at the Health and Human Services Department.

The General Services Administration is working with other agencies to develop continuous monitoring provisions for the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, the government’s standardized approach to cloud security assessments, authorizations and continuous monitoring. Earlier this year, a GSA official said as many as nine controls for continuous monitoring will be part of FedRAMP by June.

The hurdles

But as the March report from OMB showed, agencies are struggling with continuous monitoring, even as tools and best practices continue to evolve.
 
One challenge is that tools such as SIEM require fine-tuning. “Deploying a new technology and expecting it to just work probably will make you less secure because you’ll have a false sense of security,” White said.

DHS worked for more than a month to calibrate its SIEM solution to understand how the organization classified low-, medium- and high-risk events. The calibrations are ongoing.

“It’s a continuous effort to train the technology so it gives you the types of alerts that you are looking for,” he said.

Money is another hurdle. Security executives keep costs as low as possible by using existing equipment whenever possible to collect data. Any gaps in information gathering, analysis and reporting must be filled with new investments. In the past, some agencies, including HHS, used funds available from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help pay for continuous monitoring products, Galik said.

Financial considerations encourage some executives to become philosophical about investments in continuous monitoring. “You will have to spend some money, but it doesn’t take a very large security breach to make a CIO or CISO wish that their money had been better spent,” White said.


Next steps: Sizing up solutions

When evaluating commercial products for automating continuous monitoring activities, IT managers should ask detailed questions, agency chief information security officers and consultants said. Here’s a checklist of some key areas to cover when shopping for security event management, vulnerability scanning and similar products.

  • What types of log files does the solution collect?
  • Does it scan devices outside the Microsoft Windows environment, including Linux and Unix systems and network devices?  
  • What format is used to report the data that’s been collected? 
  • Is the solution compliant with the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Security Content Automation Protocol?
  • If not, what other vendors successfully integrate with the solution?
  • What in-house expertise will be needed to manage and use the solution effectively?

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.