Continuous monitoring has some growing up to do

It's the future for protecting networks, but is not yet a mature technology

Federal IT security policy is shifting from a snapshot model of certification and accreditation of information systems to continuous monitoring of their security status.

Vendors already are providing the tools for this type of monitoring, but a lack of standardization has left administrators “drowning in noise,” said Tony Sager, chief of the vulnerability analysis and operations group in the National Security Agency’s Information Assurance Directorate.

“Solving cybersecurity is all information management,” Sager said June 15 at the Symantec government security conference in Washington. “The vast majority of things facing us are known problems with known solutions,” but agencies spend too much time and manpower handling remedial tasks that are not being automated because a lack of standardization makes correlating, analyzing and sharing data difficult.

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NIST aids the cause of real-time security

Agencies slowly gain ground on continuous monitoring

The National Institute of Standards and Technology is developing specifications to standardize commercial tools, including the Security Content Automation Protocols, or SCAP.

“SCAP is not continuous monitoring,” but it supports continuous monitoring, said Peter Mell, senior computer scientist at NIST.

NIST describes SCAP as “a synthesis of interoperable specifications derived from community ideas.” They are intended to be easily implemented in off-the-shelf products used by agencies. NIST oversees a program for validating products for SCAP compliance by independent laboratories, and the General Services Administration requires validation for vulnerability and configuration management tools in blanket purchase agreements.

But vendor support has not been as strong as anticipated.

“Vendors are not coming out in force,” one conference attendee complained. “They have to make money at the end of the day,” and because SCAP is not a recognized industry standard, adoption has been disappointing.

To date, 42 products from 31 vendors have received SCAP validation

“We found this to be part of the problem” when the IRS began a program to incorporate SCAP products to provide continuous feeds of security information, said IRS Chief Information Security Officer David Stender.

The IRS effort was complicated by the size and diversity of the enterprise. Tools were available to do the job of monitoring specific elements, but there was a dearth of products that could produce data in a single, interoperable format. As a result, “it was much more expensive than we thought it would be,” Stender said. The project ended up with a 20 percent cost overrun.

“It sounded really good, but it was a bigger elephant than I understood at the time,” he said.

The officials did not fault NIST’s efforts in creating standard protocols.

“The conceptual model is solid,” Sager said. But NIST has to compete with vendors against formally ratified industry standards that are included as product features.

NIST is continuing efforts to provide a standardized framework for security monitoring on a number of fronts. It has produced a draft report on using the Homeland Security Department’s Continuous Asset Evaluation, Situational Awareness and Risk Scoring architecture. The interagency report, “An Enterprise Continuous Monitoring Technical Reference Architecture,” is intended to facilitate continuous monitoring by providing a reference architecture to help aggregate and analyze data collected from diverse security tools, and enable user queries to provide overall situational awareness.

CyberScope, an application developed by the Homeland Security and Justice departments, uses XML schema developed by NIST to gather agency data on compliance with the Federal Information Security Management Act. Right now it uses a first version of the Lightweight Asset Summary Results schema that was produced quickly to get CyberScope into use, Mell said. NIST also is working on what he called more robust schema for it, which includes the Asset Reporting Format and the Asset Identification schema.

Mell said NIST also is working on a framework for doing continuous monitoring in a cloud environment.

“If we’re successful, there will be a fundamental change in the way we do security in government,” he said. “We want to be able to write specs at a low enough level that vendors can enter” a multivendor ecosystem of interoperable tools.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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