A successful cyber sprint, with a questionable finish line

The federal CIO says agencies have beefed up security during his 30-day push -- but the sprint is just the beginning.

Tony Scott

U.S. CIO Tony Scott said the government made significant progress on improving cybersecurity in the past 30 days.

The federal government's 30-day cybersecurity sprint will wind down this weekend, but the work is far from over.

The sprint will formally end on July 12, U.S. CIO Tony Scott said, and information on how well the government has assessed and improved its cybersecurity posture will come out slowly in the following weeks.

The initial news seems good, Scott added.

As FCW reported June 12, the sprint memo called for agency CIOs to:

  • Scan for "indicators of compromise" listed in the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team's Analysis Report and inform the Department of Homeland Security immediately if the scans turn up any evidence of malicious cyber activity.
  • Patch critical vulnerabilities.
  • Tighten policy and practices for privileged users by minimizing their number and limiting the functions under privileged accounts, the time they can be logged in and the privileged functions that can be performed via remote access.
  • Accelerate implementation of multifactor authentication, with a priority on privileged users.
  • Identify and catalog high-value data, systems, equipment, infrastructure and applications, and make a risk-based assessment of current cybersecurity and physical security protections for those items.

"As we're nearing the end of the 30-day sprint, I have positive results to report," Scott told reporters on July 9. He said agencies have "dramatically increased" two-factor authentication for privileged users and claimed that "a number of agencies have hit 100 percent."

Governmentwide, two-factor authentication increased 20 percent during the sprint, Scott said.

Ralph Kahn, vice president of federal at security firm Tanium, told FCW that the "urgent but fairly broad" language of the sprint memo, which called for improvements but did not set any quotas, was a good approach.

"You risk setting up agencies to fail" if you list specific demands, he said, adding that the open language hopefully prompted fuller participation from agencies in desperate need of an honest look at their cybersecurity situations.

From Kahn's perspective, the patch issue is one of the most crucial problems to emerge from the sprint. "In many cases, agencies just don't know" where they stand with software patches, he said, noting that many of them rely on legacy systems for which regular patches aren't available or on "incomplete tools" that might report issues have been patched when they haven't.

It will be an ongoing battle, he said. "That whole patching thing is a lot more complicated than a 30-day sprint would indicate," Kahn said.

Chris Edwards, chief technology officer at identity management firm Intercede, praised the sprint for pushing two-factor authentication.

"It is certainly needed as the first line of defense and does significantly raise the bar for hackers to clear," he told FCW. "It should also be one of the simplest first steps to take. Even if you can only enforce smart card systems logon for 95 percent of the workforce, that still greatly reduces the number of people who actually have a password that can be phished, intercepted or guessed."

However, agencies leave "username/password 'back doors' to support certain legacy systems," Edwards said, which undercuts two-factor authentication.

"Additionally, relying on incoming perimeter defenses alone does little to reduce the impact of Trojans and other [advanced persistent threat] software if that is able to acquire systems-level permissions and leak data over a long period of time," he added.

Still, multifactor authentication "serves as the linchpin to all other [cybersecurity] techniques," he said.

The Interior Department was one of the 18 major agencies that did not require privileged users to use personal identity verification (PIV) cards as of the last governmentwide Federal Information Security Management Act report, but it mandated smart card access early this month.

Next steps?

"Encrypting sensitive email content would further protect data in transit," Edwards said. "This can be done with PIV cards and now using enhanced derived credentials on mobile devices."

Edwards and Kahn both advocated a continued push for continuous monitoring rather than periodic reviews of agencies' security.

And although Scott said the sprint has "greatly enhanced the cybersecurity profile of the U.S. government as a whole," many experts have cautioned that cybersecurity is a long-haul proposition and not easily remedied by quick bursts of activity.

"Cybersecurity…is not a sprint, it's a marathon," said Gregory Wilshusen, director of information security issues at the Government Accountability Office, during a congressional hearing on July 8. "It needs to be going on a continuous basis."

"[I] agree," Scott tweeted on July 10. "[The] 30-day sprint [is] not the totality of cybersecurity."

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