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Hoping higher FISMA scores mean more than compliance

Hoping higher FISMA scores mean more than compliance

The news in government cybersecurity is not all bad.

Following a slip in compliance scores for IT security requirements in fiscal 2012, scores rebounded in FY 2013. And a new emphasis on continuous monitoring and authorization of IT systems – together with a program to provide the necessary tools for the job – could mean that things will get a little better when the results are in for the fiscal year just ended.

The overall state of government cybersecurity is judged by the Federal Information Security Management Act, and the scorecard is the Office of Management and Budget’s annual report to Congress on FISMA compliance. In the report for FY 2012, released in early 2013, overall FISMA compliance slipped from 75 percent in FY 2011 to 73 percent.

In the report for FY 2013 however, overall performance jumped to 81 percent, “with significant improvements in areas such as the adoption of automated configuration management, remote access authentication and email encryption.”

I am the first to admit that FISMA compliance – or compliance with any standards – does not equate to security. But the reports provide a useful baseline and indicate that agencies are paying attention to their security and the maturity of their programs.

Patrick Howard, former chief information security officer for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (and now the program manager for continuous diagnostics and mitigation (CDM) at Kratos Defense), points out that the most recent results show that agencies still are struggling to develop long-term security plans, and he expects to see this again for FY 2014. “That’s nothing new,” he said. “We’ve been seeing that for years.”

But there are some reasons to believe – or at least hope – that there will be continued improvement. The latest report cited an improvement in meeting cross-agency performance goals, including trusted Internet connections, strong authentication and continuous monitoring. And there will be a stronger emphasis on continuous monitoring in the next evaluations.

In November 2013, OMB Memo M-14-03 set a timeline for agencies to move from static reauthorization of IT systems every three years, to continuous monitoring and ongoing reauthorization. Agencies were to have a strategy for information security continuous monitoring (ICSM) in place by Feb. 28, 2014, begin cooperation with the Homeland Security Department to implement the plans and begin procuring products and services through the DHS CDM program. Agencies will be evaluated on their compliance with these requirements in their 2014 FISMA reviews.

Challenges to fully implementing these ICSM goals remain, of course. DHS has not yet established a governmentwide ISCM dashboard, as called for in the memo. And the CDM program, which provides a source for procuring tools and services through a blanket purchase agreement at the General Services Administration, still is a work in progress.

Two of six task orders to be released under Phase 1 of CDM have been released for industry quotes, and the remaining four orders are expected to be released in fiscal 2015. Phase 2 of the CDM program still is being developed. Howard says there is a lack of awareness among many agencies about the continuous monitoring services available under CDM and that many agencies are waiting to see what happens with the second task order before implementing these services.

I am hopeful that the increased resources and attention on continuous monitoring – both in formal programs and in the security community in general – will help continue the upward trend in FISMA scores, however. Higher scores might not mean that agency IT systems are more secure, but they couldn’t hurt.

Posted by William Jackson on Oct 03, 2014 at 12:33 PM


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