DHS mulls patching alternatives

The Homeland Security Department is considering alternatives to its Patch Authentication and Dissemination Capability, which has failed to generate many users.

Just what a new patch management service would do has not been determined, said Amit Yoran, director of the National Cybersecurity Division in DHS' Information Assurance and Infrastructure Protection Directorate.

The only thing decided so far is that 'it is not a continuation of PADC,' he said.

PADC hasn't measured up to the expectations held out at its January 2003 introduction.

'We have to measure ourselves by the value our programs provide,' Yoran said. 'The people responsible for maintaining security have to be the ones to determine this. We talked with agency chief security officers and CIOs. The message we got was that it was a good concept, but the program wasn't delivering the value we hoped for.'

PADC is a free service offered by DHS' Federal Computer Incident Response Center. It tests and validates vendors' security patches, notifies government subscribers of available patches and provides a secure link for downloading them.

SecurInfo Corp. of San Antonio and Veridian Corp. of Arlington, Va., operate PADC for FedCIRC under a $10.8 million, five-year task order. Veridian tests the patches to ensure they work as advertised, and SecurInfo digitally signs and posts them on its secure servers, at padc.fedcirc.gov.

But the General Accounting Office has found that limits in capabilities and available licenses have discouraged use by agencies.

'PADC is one of a variety of available services and automated tools, and it does not include important features available in other services and products,' Robert F. Dacey, GAO's director of information security, told the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census last year.

The subcommittee has questioned why government computers remain vulnerable to worms and viruses. The complexity of patch management is one reason.

Patches protect systems from vulnerabilities discovered in hardware and software that hackers can exploit. But identifying components that need to be patched, then installing and verifying fixes is so time-consuming that many systems remain vulnerable long after patches are available.

PADC was intended to help federal IT administrators do that job. But subscribing agencies must give FedCIRC lists of their IT assets, so they can be notified of relevant patches. Each agency, however, must still test and install the patches on its own configurations, then verify that they were installed properly. They must then update the configuration information for FedCIRC.

Although 47 agencies subscribed to the service, the Office of Management and Budget has said use is low.

Another limitation is the number of licenses available. Budget constraints have held it to only 2,000 accounts governmentwide. FedCIRC cannot offer many agencies enough licenses to meet their needs.

Meanwhile, commercial patch management has progressed to the point that off-the-shelf technology could be an improvement over PADC.

'The program has not kept up with current technology,' Yoran said. 'The commercial market is promising.'

He said DHS is working with the CIO Council and OMB to develop requirements for a patch management system.

'If there is a commercial solution we can adopt, it would make all the sense in the world' to use it, Yoran said.

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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