State at odds with GAO over its pioneering security system

The State Department has been a pioneer in developing a continuous monitoring and risk assessment program for its global unclassified network, which it claims has reduced security risks to Windows-based hosts and clients by 89 percent over a recent 12-month period.

But the Government Accountability Office, while acknowledging that State has been “at the forefront” of continuous monitoring, said the system is neither inclusive nor reliable enough to ensure security in a network that supports 260 embassies and hundreds of other offices around the world.

Department officials acknowledge that the system is imperfect, but said GAO is overreaching in some of its recommendations for improvement.

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Achieving total security is “impossible and impracticable,” State’s Chief Financial Officer James Millette wrote in response to a recent GAO report. The proper goal is adequate security, and that's what the department’s continuous monitoring and scoring program is intended to provide, he said.

“The department employs a layered approach to security risk management by employing multiple levels of protection,” Millette wrote. “This protection is accomplished by implementing a matrix of technical, operational, and management security controls designed to thwart network threats, detect and mitigate vulnerabilities, and strengthen business operations.”

State, like many departments, received dismal grades in the early years of assessing its performance under the 2002 Federal Information Security and Management Act (FISMA), getting four Fs and one D- in the first five years. The monitoring and scoring program is an effort to increase real-time awareness and prioritize security efforts, and to push responsibility for problem resolution from headquarters officials to administrators in the field.

The department in 2008 began a program of automated scanning of systems and grading results, which CISO John Streufert said reduced vulnerabilities by nearly 90 percent from July 2008 to July 2009 and cut the cost of FISMA certification and accreditation of systems by more than 60 percent.

State’s current iPost system is a custom application intended to provide continuous monitoring capabilities over selected elements of State’s global IT environment. “Continuous” in this context means often enough to enable to risk-based security decisions.

The system gathers data from Microsoft Active Directory and System Management Server as well as a host of diagnostic scanning tools. It then formats and correlates the data and produces a dashboard showing current status by site and operational unit, assigning letter grades to each. Scans for vulnerabilities, configuration, passwords and patching status are done every 24 to 72 hours, rather than every three years, and grades are assigned daily.

GAO recognized the value of the effort, but said that use of iPost is not consistent or complete. It addresses only Windows hosts and not other assets on the network, does not include all security controls for information systems, and its risk prioritization is not documented.

“Establishing a process for defining and prioritizing risk through a scoring mechanism is not simple and solutions to these issues have not yet been developed at State,” the GAO report concludes.

The report said remaining challenges for iPost include:

  • Overcoming limitations and technical issues with data collection tools.
  • Identifying and notifying individuals with responsibility for site-level security.
  • Implementing configuration management for iPost.
  • Adopting a strategy for continuous monitoring of controls.
  • Managing stakeholder expectations for continuous monitoring activities.

The department agreed with GAO's recommendations that procedures be implemented to consistently notify senior managers at sites with low security grades and that it develop a documented continuous monitoring strategy.

It resisted a recommendation for further documentation of data accuracy and iPost configuration management, saying this would contribute to a climate of “paper compliance” rather than dealing with real security issues.

The department rejected three GAO recommendations for additional documentation of iPost data, controls and occupational roles, saying this would run counter to “the purpose of replacing the compliance-based security regime with a continuous monitoring regime,” that addresses advanced, persistent and dynamic threats.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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Reader Comments

Thu, Aug 11, 2011

What an interesting report from the GAO. If I recall correctly, the Department of State sends someone to testify before Senator Carper, and this person states that, because of iPost, risk has been reduced at the Department by 90%. Doing some quick math, based on the numbers in the GAO report, the Department of State would be hard pressed to claim a 50% reduction in risk. What is going on at State? It appears that State’s IT leadership has a credibility problem, and that is unfortunate for such a fine and well-respected institution.

Thu, Aug 11, 2011

And State needs to point out to GAO the fact that security is risk managed and that they have plans for improving the security as resources permit. Feds are gradually understanding about critical controls. Look first to prioritize the various missons and then you know where to focus resources. Focus improving security on quick wins, then hygiene, then advanced. Wish OMB would focus on this too instead of areas that are all over the map. I'm so tired of "theme-based" or "agenda-driven" audits. Were they trying to bring State down a peg? State has a plan and is improving security. These snipe audits only weaken the cyber security cause.

Wed, Aug 10, 2011 Walter Washington DC

There is only one way to make the computer systems at State 100% safe. Unplug them and go back to using pen and paper. Of course, then you have a whole variety of other problems. But at least the computers will be safe. :)

Wed, Aug 10, 2011 BB Wash DC

From the info provided, it seems apparent that Dept of State CIO has a sound technical and fiscal approach that does what's needed, while GAO still has their heads in the sand looking for perfection, irrespective of implementation / maintainability costs or applicability. One thing has always been true of GAO, nothing is too perfect.

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