With new FISMA rules, security progress can be measured

Metrics on IT security performance establish a baseline for the future

How good is government IT security? Is it getting better?

The Office of Management and Budget has released its report on Federal Information Security Management Act compliance for fiscal 2010 and it’s hard to say from the report.

Most agencies are pretty much in compliance with the FISMA, but it has become painfully clear over the past nine years that compliance does not equal security. This year’s report does include some first-time metrics on IT security performance, however, that are establishing a baseline for measuring progress.

The results for 2010 are mixed, with performance being far from perfect in any category. But the real test will be how these figures shift in the coming years.

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The report makes it clear that impetus for many of the improvements in IT security practices in recent years has come not from FISMA reform or improved oversight but from frustration in the agencies themselves over the inadequacies of mere FISMA compliance.

“As a result, many agencies began to develop new methods to protect their systems that often went well beyond what was required by policy or regulation,” the OMB report states. “In the past few years, the federal government as a whole has begun to harness these techniques developed by forward-thinking agencies — as well as industry best practices — to move FISMA implementation toward the real-time detection and mitigation of security vulnerabilities.”

One concrete improvement last year under FISMA is reporting through Cyberscope, an interactive data collection tool that receives data feeds from agencies to assess the security posture of their information infrastructures.

“Armed with more insight into agency-level security posture, DHS hosted individual meetings with agencies to discuss the new approach, request additional information, and establish meaningful dialogue with agencies’ senior leaders and key information security personnel,” the report states. “The next step in this evolution in [fiscal] 2011 will be the introduction of the ‘CyberStat’ management model,” which is intended to evolve security metrics and allow DHS to correlate data on risks across the entire federal enterprise.

Metrics collected last year to address actual information security rather than FISMA compliance included the use of personal identity verification credentials for identity management and IT system access, the use of automated monitoring, laptop encryption, and incident response and reporting. Because these figures are new, there are no comparisons with previous years to measure progress, but they create a baseline.

Although agencies had issued more than 4.5 million PIV credentials as of last December, covering 79 percent of the required federal and contractor workforce, only 55 percent of user accounts are configured to require these credentials for access. Most of those are in two agencies, with the remaining agencies reporting from 0 to 3 percent. Agencies have until March 31 to provide plans for fully implementing PIV cards for access management.

A total of 66 percent of IT assets were being managed with automated tools last year, with performance at individual agencies ranging from 22 percent to 100 percent, and the use of automated vulnerability assessment tools averaging about 51 percent overall. Fifty-four percent of agency laptops were encrypted to protect data. It took agencies on average about nine hours to determine whether an anomalous activity was a real security incident, and about 20 hours to report incidents to the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team.

Whether these numbers are good or bad is difficult to say, but there is obvious room for improvement in every category. Measuring that improvement will be an important part of the next OMB report when comparative figures should be available, which should make for interesting reading.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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