Agencies still need help protecting high value assets

A newly released DHS report reveals feedback from agencies on some of the biggest technical and bureaucratic obstacles they face protecting their most sensitive and mission critical IT assets.

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The Department of Homeland Security issued a Binding Operational Directive in May directing all agencies to identify, categorize and prioritize cybersecurity for high value assets. However, according to a new technical report by the agency, communications in the wake of that directive "show that agencies need help in understanding the architectural weaknesses within [high value] systems" and need additional assistance to protect them.

The federal government is making a concerted effort to shift its cybersecurity resources and focus to the most sensitive and mission critical systems that agencies need to carry out their missions. At an August 2018 FCW event, federal CIO Suzette Kent said that 100 percent of agencies have submitted their inventory of high value assets, but watchdogs continue to find agencies that need to implement stronger protections around those assets.

The report, compiled in July but released to the public this week, flags a number of lessons learned from data calls conducted by DHS with other agencies after the directive was issued. Common challenges and obstacles experienced by agencies include placing operational considerations ahead of security, the "systemic" lack of continuous and timely patching of known security weaknesses, the increasing sophistication of malware and phishing attacks, insufficient documentation around access controls and not properly segmenting networks to limit the impact of a breach.

As DHS points out, many of the best practices for responding to these challenges are included in the Risk Management Framework. On email phishing and malware attacks, the department recommends the use of tools like Domain-based Message Authentication Reporting and Conformation (DMARC) as well as testing suspicious email attachments in a virtual environment, or sandbox.

DHS issued a separate Binding Operational Directive last year that would require federal agencies to implement the highest levels of DMARC protection by Oct. 16, 2018. While DHS officials have been generally satisfied with agency adoption, it's unclear how many agencies will be 100 percent compliant by next month's deadline.

"I think it will be a rush to the finish, but some [agencies] are going to be pressing," said Matthew Travis, Deputy Undersecretary of DHS' cyber bureau. "I don't want to predict where we're going to come out, but it's a full court press."

Overly generous access controls in sensitive systems remains a significant problem across the federal government. Reports by OMB, the Government Accountability Office and other bodies over the past two years have consistently cited the issue as a big hole in federal cybersecurity.

The DHS report indicates that little has changed in the wake of those warnings, noting that lax identity management protocols continue to leave agencies vulnerable to both malicious actors who target the accounts of privileged users like system, network and database administrators, as well as disgruntled employees who retain access to sensitive systems long after they should.

"In many cases, user identities and access rights stay active for months or years after the job function changes or employment is terminated," the report states. "Terminated employees with malicious intent could seriously damage HVA data and operations, particularly if they held privileged access roles prior to termination and those associated accounts remain active."

On Sept. 26, Kent said the government's draft policy on Identity, Credential and Access Management (ICAM) released in March 2018 received more comments than any other draft policy. In comments reported by Signal -- a magazine run by the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, which hosted the event -- Kent indicated that the final policy will reflect "more flexible approaches" to credentialing beyond the use Personal Identity Verification (PIV) cards.

The DHS report notes that for many of the most pressing security vulnerabilities facing high value assets, commercially available technologies exist that can "shore up defenses in the areas most critical," though the advanced age of many legacy systems in the federal government present real integration issues.

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