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State Dept., GAO Fight Over Windows-Based Security Protocol

A State Department program that continuously monitors and calculates risks assessment in the Government's Windows-based systems is under fire by the Government Accountability Office for its unreliability.

While acknowledging that State has been "at the forefront" of continuous monitoring, the Government Accountability Office is questioning the State Department's findings that its system has reduced 89 percent of all security risks in Windows sysems during a recent 12-month period. It is countering those findings by saying the system for Windows servers and clients does not go far enough to provide the adequate security protection to support its worldwide embassies and offices, and has provided its own list of improvements it would like to see the State Department implement.

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

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 the senior writer for Government Computer News (GCN.com).

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