FedRAMP leans into OSCAL for streamlining authorizations

The Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program is pushing adoption of the Open Security Controls Assessment Language to enable automated reviews.

The Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program is moving toward more automation in the validation of FedRAMP security controls, with plans to adopt the Open Security Controls Assessment Language for wide-scale implementation in the near future.

OSCAL is a standardized and machine-readable framework for capturing and sharing security information from the entire risk management stack. While not developed specifically for FedRAMP, it could dramatically improve what is has long been a fairly manual validation and documentation process.  According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which worked with industry to develop the language, OSCAL has a range of capabilities that are beneficial for cloud security and enables interoperable communication and automation between applications.

“It is comprised of seven models that deliver [security information in] machine-readable format in XML, JSON and YAML,” NIST Senior Security Technical Lead for Cloud Computing Michaela Iorga explained at FCW’s recent FedRAMP summit. “So OSCAL provides traceability from the catalog of controls all the way to assessment results.”

In June, the FedRAMP program office announced NIST’s release of OSCAL 1.0.0 and encouraged stakeholders to begin exploring the framework for future use.  Then in late July, FedRAMP rolled out a wide range of guides and conversion tools on its GitHub repository to help agencies, cloud service providers and third-party assessment organizations in the automation of FedRAMP authorization package content.

OSCAL can also validate specific parameters in different risk management frameworks. Its extensibility allows users to even build their own vocabulary of system security plan properties, according to National Renewal Energy Laboratory Cybersecurity Visualization Engineer Paul Wand.

“It has been hugely valuable in speeding up development. I was going to have to build the whole data model and OSCAL already has that,” Wand said. “The fact that you can build your own vocabulary and characterize risks in the specific way that you need to, that has been crucial.”

OSCAL gives cloud service providers and developers an advantage as well. With the ability to create “control profiles,” CSPs can provide their customers with all the information in a given environment with the push of a button.

“With OSCAL, we start to see a rapid way to determine whether or not there are gaps in the current environments and then evolve into what a modernization program would look like,” said Boomi CTO Joseph Flynn, who spoke at the same panel as Iorga and Wand. “The faster we can provide this data to our security officers, the faster we can analyze and find the gaps in our controls.”

Agencies have increasingly realized the value of automation and how it frees up humans for decision-making and analytical roles, leaving machines to do the labor-intensive task of sifting through raw data.  U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Chief Information Security Officer Shane Barney highlighted automation’s benefits in a different session at the FedRAMP Summit.

“On the security side, we recognized very quickly that the terabytes of log data we were ingesting daily from our cloud systems was well beyond our capabilities,” Barney said. “So automation really becomes that linchpin between us understanding the trust-and-verify aspects of it and doing it in a form that best utilizes our resources.”

Additionally, OSCAL’s emphasis on interoperability enables uses well beyond FedRAMP. With some customization, Flynn noted, OSCAL security applications can validate controls related to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

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