The Dangers of Security

Chief information security officers must balance restricted access with productivity.

Chief information security officers must balance restricted access with productivity.

A few ways federal agencies handle cybersecurity: During the day, automatically log off users after 30 minutes of no mouse or keyboard activity. Install card readers. Require passwords that are random strings of letters and numbers. In the evening, have employees remove their hard drives and dump them into filing cabinets under lock and key.

Also, encrypt data. Make sure no one downloads unapproved software by revoking individuals' operating system administrator privileges. Restrict Web access. Plug up USB ports with epoxy glue. (OK, that last example might be the federal equivalent of a contemporary legend: an oft-repeated but unverifiable story. No one will confirm seeing it or doing it themselves, but plenty of folks know a friend of a friend who swears it's true.)

Security measures are restrictive by definition. They place barriers where once there was free-flowing traffic. They demand immediate attention from users who probably would prefer to do anything else but reconfirm their identity. "We hear the complaints about things slowing down," acknowledges an information security officer at an agency deploying new encryption measures. But, he adds, "we don't care."

Agencies can push only so far before the backlash sets in, however. Civil servants will write down their complex passwords on paper and keep a list of them near their computer (greatly lowering the passwords' value). They might find an application that simulates mouse movement, preventing the automatic logoff function from kicking in. (One such program is sold pre-installed by Wichita, Kan.-based WiebeTech on a USB thumb drive.) Employees might grow unintentionally careless if they're told to perform too many security procedures. And that's just the users. The more the cybersecurity shop has to do, the more it might find its responsibilities overwhelming and fail to keep up with all of them.

Standing at the center of this debate on how much security is enough are agency chief information security officers, who report to chief information officers. Balancing ease of network access with cybersecurity restrictions is just one trade-off CISOs must consider. There's the question of expense; implementing additional cybersecurity on top of existing infrastructure can be costly in terms of software, hardware and management. Money spent on cybersecurity is money that can't be spent elsewhere; things like innovation and modernization likely will be among the losers.

How much to centralize security in a far-flung department is another conundrum. "You can't secure what you can't manage," says the agency security officer, but many departments refuse to give headquarters chief information officers budget authority over bureaus and agencies. On the other hand, centralize everything and all of a sudden an agency has created an inviting target for attack. With a centralized account accreditation system, "if someone pops into that one, they have the keys to the kingdom," notes Larry Ruffin, the Interior Department's CISO. Ruffin adds that another challenge is responding to Office of Management and Budget mandates. OMB is "placing some really heavy demands on our existing staff," he says.

OMB reacted quickly after the most notable recent loss of federal data, the May 2006 theft of a laptop containing information about 26.5 million veterans from a Veterans Affairs Department worker's suburban Maryland home. Within about two months of a loud public reaction to the VA data loss, OMB issued a mandate requiring agencies to encrypt within 45 days all data stored on laptops "unless the data is determined to be nonsensitive, in writing."

"It's like this vicious cycle of constant new requirements and then always trying to find this balance of efficiency," says Shannon Kellogg, director of government and industry affairs for RSA Security Inc. in Bedford, Mass. A public cybersecurity meltdown like VA's can be useful from an oversight perspective for ramming through cybersecurity measures that otherwise might take a back seat, but CISOs tend to say they're already under enough pressure to secure things as it is.

"The issue of balance of course is very important to us because we could secure the VA by just shutting everything down," says Bob Howard, VA's assistant secretary for information technology and CIO, who acts as his own CISO. "We obviously can't do that." For example, in keeping with the OMB mandate, VA is working to encrypt portable flash memory sticks. "What I'm not going to do is take away all the unencrypted thumb drives," Howard says. "People still have to conduct their business."

Being a CISO requires more than knowledge of cybersecurity. The job of a CISO really is prioritizing risks. Everything is risky (even doing nothing). And there's no such thing as a 100 percent secure system. Mandate that all mobile data be encrypted and the potential of data loss is stemmed. But life can't stop while the encryption program gears up. The encryption is never "complete." There always are new devices, new standards, new systems, new vulnerabilities. One reason VA has not encrypted all thumb drives is that some manufacturers falsely told the department they comply with National Institute of Standards and Technology's cybersecurity standards, Howard says. Only VA testing (which took time and money) revealed the lie. "We were pretty teed off about that," he adds.

Says Kellogg: "If anybody tells you they have an easy answer, they're either living on another planet or they're not taking the time to learn these complex problems."

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