OMB official: Too soon to judge computer security law

The Federal Information Security Management Act isn't old enough for its most effective provisions to prompt great cybersecurity improvements, an Office of Management and Budget official said Thursday.

The act, known as FISMA, took effect in 2002. It called for agencies, over a period of as long as two years, to identify and categorize their information technology systems according to the level of risk that a compromise would pose. The second phase is implementing security controls based on those risks, a process that's been going on for only 18 to 24 months, said Glenn Schlarman, OMB branch chief for information policy and technology. He spoke Thursday on a breakfast panel sponsored by Government Executive.

The controls phase "is new, and that has never been done anywhere by anyone," Schlarman said. The federal government has "some very strong pockets of security, and some really weak pockets of security," he added.

FISMA lately has been criticized as a paper-based exercise divorced from the real needs of cybersecurity. The law "measures the wrong things, and it measures the wrong things the wrong way," said Bruce Brody, also a panelist at the breakfast. He is a former federal cybersecurity chief and recently became a vice president at INPUT, a Reston, Va.-based government market analysis firm.

The federal government is making little headway in tackling cybersecurity problems, said Alan Paller, the third breakfast panelist and director of research at the SANS Institute, a nonprofit cybersecurity research organization. "In order to make progress, you actually [have] to reduce the problem a little bit, [but] the problem is being made harder," he said.

A chief information security officer in the audience, who asked not to be identified, said FISMA can be effective, depending on how it is implemented. The official cited the process of certification and accreditation of IT systems, saying, "if you want to do C&A the [Defense Department] way, you will not succeed." The process requires agencies to account for all their systems, implement risk-based technical controls and formally authorize systems' continued operation.

Although the certification and accreditation process predates FISMA by decades, it is a key measurement that Congress uses in its annual score card assessing compliance with the law. But the process heavily contributes to the ineffectiveness of FISMA, Brody and Paller contended. Nobody reads the accompanying reports, Paller said, and the money spent on paying contractors to prepare those reports would be better used on real-time monitoring.

The Defense Department follows a particularly burdensome and paper-filled certification and accreditation process, the federal official said. But, "if you're doing this right, you're doing this smart; you're not doing this as a paper exercise," the official said.

Continuous testing and monitoring of IT systems is part of FISMA compliance, Schlarman said. "If it isn't being done that way, then we have an implementation issue."

The law has called attention to the serious problem of cybersecurity, Brody said. But "there are some evolutionary possibilities that could take FISMA and the regulatory environment to another level," he said. "Benjamin Franklin said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."

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