Richard P. Tracy | A CISO's full plate in 2006

Automating security processes to make room for new entrees

This opinion piece is the full version of an abridged column that ran in the Op Ed pages of GCN's April 17 print issue.

Federal security teams may need some Alka Seltzer before 2006 is over. This year promises to deliver a full plate of significant IT challenges for federal chief information security officers (CISOs). The Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) still looms and seems to become only more complicated to manage. Technology hackers continue to proliferate and grow in their sophistication.

And as if that wasn't enough to digest, federal CISOs had better loosen their belts because new entrees have been added to the menu for 2006. This year's main course: the Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD) 12 and its October 27 deadline. HSPD-12 is a major new directive that requires standardized smart cards for verifying federal employee and contractor identities for secure access to federal buildings and information systems. The kicker is there will be no additional budget to satisfy the new guidelines.

To help with polishing off this seven-course meal, CISOs are looking to create efficiencies within their organizations to free money and manpower that can be spent on new and emerging requirements. While counting their pennies, CISOs must take a proactive approach to information assurance (IA). This means protecting IT resources against threats to their security and performance.

Within government agencies, IA specifically means certifying and accrediting IT systems in accordance with federal and defense agency regulations. Automation of key
activities, such as asset management, risk management and compliance management, lays the foundation for a protective and proactive security posture. By automating large portions of these security processes, security managers can focus less on repetitive, time-intensive activities and more on high-value activities such as complying with HSPD-12 and other emerging security requirements.

Asset Management

Manual asset management requires security managers to determine how many systems they have running throughout the enterprise. While seemingly a straightforward exercise, it can become quite difficult. Consider for example the Department of Defense (DoD). The DoD has millions of information technology systems and applications running throughout the world. Just locating them is close to impossible, much less keeping them secure.

Today, automated asset management offerings can continuously search for and identify all systems attached to IT networks. This allows agencies to have a comprehensive view of their assets at all times with minimal effort for IT security personnel. This continuous assessment of assets empowers CISOs and their staff to update and enforce mandatory security policies that ensure system security.

Risk Management

As part of FISMA compliance, agencies are responsible for identifying the risks of running IT systems in the government and then determining whether or not the risks are acceptable. Risk management software incorporates federal, agency and department-specific definitions of risk into its framework and routinely scans existing IT security systems to determine if conditions meeting the definition of risk are present. If such a threshold is found, the software alerts security personnel so they can evaluate the risk and determine the corrective course of action. Automating the vulnerability assessment process to support risk management policies should reduce the amount of time necessary to identify new vulnerabilities by up to 90 percent.

Compliance Management

Every federal agency and program must comply with a growing number of security policies. Compliance often requires thousands of hours of manpower each year. In
addition to remaining in compliance, agencies face large reporting requirements to demonstrate their adherence to the regulations. These two situations combined tax even the most productive agencies.

Today, sophisticated compliance management offerings can help agencies continuously define risks, automatically mitigate many security problems and generate the reports and documents required to submit to auditing authorities. FISMA alone requires a compliance document that can be two inches thick. If created manually, it can take six or more months to complete. When automated and computer-generated, that time can be cut down to as little as two weeks.

Automation for a Healthy Balance

As agencies automate one area of security, it becomes much easier to automate others. For example, an asset management system allows agencies to know what systems and applications they have running in the network. Knowing this allows risk managers to easily see where risk exists and determine whether or not the risk is acceptable. Knowing the risks then allows for risk mitigation, which helps agencies achieve passing grades for their compliance efforts.

In 2006, CISOs will need to continue implementing existing systems, install and run new systems and deal with the new security threats that emerge daily. There's no doubt that even with highly automated security processes, CISOs will have more on their plate than they can handle. However, process automation will likely be the only way to bring security offices into a healthy balance of security enforcement and compliance. And maybe, just maybe, CISOs will be able to focus on those areas of security above and beyond compliance that are of critical import to their programs.

Dessert anyone?

Richard P. Tracy is chief security officer for Telos. E-mail him at richard.tracy@telos.com.

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