turtle

The slow but steady progress of FISMA

The Federal Information Security Management Act, the framework for cybersecurity in the federal government, has come in for a lot of criticism since its enactment in 2002. Some say it is hopelessly out of date; others that it never was adequate. But the law has proved remarkably resilient in the face of an IT landscape and threat environment that has changed almost beyond recognition in the last 11 years.

This is due in large part to the continually and rapidly evolving body of cybersecurity guidance being produced by the National Institute of Standards and Technology – the meat on the bones of FISMA.

Assessments of FISMA’s success remain cautious, at best. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office shows “mixed progress” from fiscal 2011 to 2012. Some security elements improved across agencies while some declined, and “23 of 24 of the major federal agencies had weaknesses in the controls that are intended to limit or detect access to computer resources.”

Government IT security professionals questioned in a recent survey by MeriTalk gave a positive but cool assessment of the law. Although just 27 percent of respondents reported being fully compliant with FISMA, 62 percent believe increased compliance would improve security, and 53 percent say it already has improved security.

But they still have reservations about FISMA. Twenty-eight percent said it focuses on compliance rather fixing problems, 21 percent say it is insufficient for today’s threats and 11 percent say it is antiquated. Still, 27 percent say it is improving with requirements such as continuous monitoring.

So, how to shift opinions of FISMA from cautious to enthusiastic? GAO focuses its recommendations for improvement on metrics. Current reporting does not address all FISMA requirements and is focused on compliance rather than outcome. GAO recommends looking at periodic assessments of risk and developing metrics for inspectors general so that they can report on the effectiveness or security programs.

NIST will need to continue updating its guidance to reflect new demands and capabilities, such as continuous monitoring of IT systems and automation of assessments.

And everyone will have to accept that cybersecurity is a moving target and that even the best-protected systems will quickly become out of date if ignored for a short time.

“You are never done, you are never there,” said Vincent Berk, CEO of FlowTraq. “We are talking about an amazingly complex problem.” But government has made great strides in addressing the task by making security a priority.

If gaps remain, it is not necessarily the fault of FISMA. If the Office of Management and Budget and the Homeland Security Department can learn to measure the right things and give credit for what works, the existing legal framework can continue to help.

Posted by William Jackson on Sep 27, 2013 at 1:36 PM0 comments


Gen. Keith Alexander

Getting harder to trust Alexander's NSA

“I need you,” National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander said several times to his audience at the National Press Club Wednesday. He needs the support of industry and the public in order to protect the nation from cyberattacks and terrorism in the face of growing concern over his agency’s wholesale collection of domestic data.

Alexander also spoke about the need to migrate the Defense Department’s 15,000 network enclaves to a more defensible architecture based on a thin, virtual cloud environment and about the need for legislation spelling out clear rules of engagement for protecting civilian cyber infrastructure and for cyber threat information sharing. But most of his talk focused on troublesome media leaks that threaten to hogtie the agency.

Data culled from the nation’s telephone and Internet carriers is crucial to thwarting foreign attacks, he said, but these programs are being threatened by what he called sensationalized and inflamed stories coming from the leaks.

“Talk about the facts,” he pleaded. “We need to get the facts out about why we need these tools.”

He then proceeded to give his latest version of the facts. But it is getting harder to trust him when his version has to be updated every month in the wake of new revelations about NSA activities. This is a shame, because it is getting in the way of the NSA’s genuinely important work of gathering foreign intelligence and protecting the government’s cyber infrastructure.

“I promise you the truth,” Alexander said back in July during his opening keynote address at the Black Hat Briefings. One of those truths was that “no one at NSA has ever gone outside the boundaries we’ve been given,” in its collection and analysis of domestic data.

Well, not exactly. Two months later, speaking at the Billington Cybersecurity Summit in Washington on Sept. 25, he acknowledged 12 willful violations of the agency’s legal authority. However, “we held ourselves accountable and we reported it,” he said. But not to the American people or to Congress until after it was publicly reported in August.

And then there were the 2,776 “incidents” that came out in the August release of declassified secret court records. These were just mistakes, he said in September, and “if we make a mistake, we self-report it in every case.”

“Self-reporting” at the NSA apparently means reporting to itself, because it didn’t report this to the public or to Congress.

Alexander, as usual, mentioned his 15 grandchildren during his talk. If you can’t trust a guy with 15 grandchildren, who can you trust? But he seemed unusually subdued. It could have been the recent dental surgery that had left one side of his jaw a little swollen. But it also might have been the three months of stress from the drip, drip, drip of revelations from those leaks. Publicly defending an agency that has spent decades in the shadows must be unnerving.

“We do the right thing in every case,” he said. “We’re trying to be more transparent.” That would be easier to believe if he didn’t have to update his version of the truth every month.

Posted by William Jackson on Sep 26, 2013 at 8:18 AM3 comments


Man with New Year

Congress to IT security: Happy fiscal New Year

Priorities for securing government’s IT infrastructure for the coming fiscal year include defending against insider threats posed by unmanaged privileged access and expanded continuous monitoring to address the growing complexity of outsider threats. But these issues could be dwarfed by the challenge of just keeping the lights on come Oct. 1.

“Security is probably the biggest issue we’ve got, because it underlies so much of the other things we are trying to do,” said Paul Christman, public sector vice president at Dell Software. “It can’t go on hiatus.”

Yet the fools on the Hill see the world spinning ’round toward the new budget year without any serious plans for enacting a budget to support critical operations. No doubt essential personnel will remain at their desks in the event of a shutdown, but without updated technology to support them, security will suffer.

“We’re finding it very challenging to assess and predict priorities, because our customers cannot assess and predict their priorities,” Christman said. “Funding has become chaotic and erratic.”

If there is any budget for fiscal 2014, insider threats are likely to be top-of-mind for administrators. A steady drumbeat of stories raises the question of how to manage the physical and logical access given to people agencies have decided to trust. On the IT side, systems administrators and others with privileged accounts often have way too much freedom, putting systems and the information they contain at risk.

The first step in controlling this access is effective policy. Most agencies and offices probably already have a good policy in place, Christman said. But there often are few if any controls to enforce it. Technology must match policy with the ability to monitor, track and audit the activity of those who are given the keys to the kingdom. This has been driven home by the activities of Chelsea (nee Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden. The National Security Agency, smarting from the Snowden leaks, has responded by reducing the number of systems administrators and instituting a two-man rule requiring separate sets of credentials for access to sensitive resources.

This process would be burdensome and unnecessary for most agencies, which could effectively monitor activity with software. But that requires money, and money requires a budget.

The government also is in the process of moving from static assessments of IT security to continuous monitoring -- or continuous diagnostics and mitigation. This process is necessary to respond to a rapidly evolving threat landscape, and suites of automated tools are available to enable it. The Homeland Security Department is offering continuous monitoring as a service through blanket purchase agreements. But here again, a budget will be necessary to allow agencies to take advantage of the service in fiscal 2014.

Budget uncertainties are being compounded by the attrition of experienced procurement personnel. Because of retirements and sequester-powered furloughs, there is a shortage of officials with the know-how to effectively wend their way through acquisition regulations to take advantage of needed technology.

“I think this is going to make the next two weeks really, really strange,” Christman said of the year-end rush to spend out 2013 budgets. “I don’t see it getting any better next year.”

Posted by William Jackson on Sep 20, 2013 at 12:07 PM2 comments


Tibet

Encrypted communications gives voice to dissidents

Information gathering by the National Security Agency – whether legal, extralegal or illegal – has dominated the news for the last two months, but it is worth noting that the United States is not the only government engaging in electronic eavesdropping.

Kaspersky Labs reported in August that the Chinese language version of the website of the Central Tibetan Administration, which represents the Dali Lama, had been corrupted, redirecting visitors to an exploit that installed a backdoor on visitors’ computers. Researchers assigned no blame for the hack, but the Dali Lama, who fled from China to India in 1959, is not looked upon with favor by the Chinese.

With issues such as this in mind, the encrypted communications company Silent Circle is reaching out to support dissident groups in Tibet and elsewhere with off-the-shelf technology that can evade Chinese or any other government surveillance.

The Human Rights Foundation announced Sept. 4 that Silent Circle has donated 200 subscriptions for its Silent Phone application to Tibetan groups that have run afoul of the Chinese government. The mobile applications and service subscriptions enable strong encryption for voice and video communications between iPhone and Android phones using the app.

This is its first such partnership to provide secure communications for whistleblowers, activists and dissidents, said Alex Gladstein of the HRF. “They [Silent Circle] are very interested in using the technology to do good,” he said. The foundation is advising on and facilitating the donations. “On our end of the partnership, we are selecting groups that need this sort of thing. This is just the first effort. We will be doing others.”

When the scheme for providing peer-to-peer encryption for mobile devices was first hatched by former Navy SEAL Mike Janke, his vision was to enable secure BYOD communications in the field for special operations personnel and for maybe a few journalists operating in dangerous areas. It turned out that the timing for such a service was right, with mobile devices having become powerful enough to handle the processing required and with privacy concerns coming to the fore for businessmen and consumers as well as the military and intelligence communities.

Spurred by the ability to do encryption and key management on user devices without leaving a trail of metadata on third-party servers, and with pricing beginning at less than $10 a month, the company now has a user base in the millions. Governments are among its earliest and largest customers, Janke said.

Much has been made of the fact that Silent Circle’s technology could make it impossible for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to listen in to calls or look at data, images and video being exchanged between secured phones (and despite reports that the National Security Agency may have found a way to break most encryption, this holds true everywhere else). But instead of pushback, U.S. military and intelligence agencies have been early adopters. In contrast to the 1990s, when the U.S. government tried to stop the spread of strong commercial encryption, it now sees it as an economic tool and a weapon in grass roots struggles for democracy.

Cell phones and social media emerged as important tools during the Arab Spring uprisings of the last two years, but the open nature of these networks have sometimes left users exposed to the governments they are protesting or fighting. These groups now have access to consumer technology that puts them on an equal footing with governments. Bits and bytes might not stand up to bombs and bullets, but this helps to level the playing field.

Posted by William Jackson on Sep 10, 2013 at 11:02 AM3 comments