Bill would force agencies to take proactive security approach

Bipartisan House bill would require feds monitor computer systems for cyberthreats and perform regular threat assessments

A recent bill that would update the Federal Information Security Management Act improves the government's computer defenses by making U.S. agencies more proactive in battling cyberthreats.

The bipartisan Federal Information Security Amendments Act of 2013 would require federal agencies to monitor their computer systems for cyberthreats and perform regular threat assessments.

The more active approach toward security replaces the 11-year-old FISMA's framework that centered on agencies being graded on security based on the number of requirements met on a checklist.

"FISMA's static, compliance-based framework is clearly inadequate to this rapidly evolving threat to our security," Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said in a statement. "Our bipartisan legislation will enhance FISMA to promote a more dynamic, risk-based approach to securing federal information systems."

Connolly, the ranking member of the House Government Operations Subcommittee, co-sponsored the bill, introduced last week in the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Other sponsors included committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., Ranking Minority Member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla.

The latest security bill comes as hackers outside the U.S increasingly target federal agencies. From 2006 to 2012, the number of cyber-incidents reported by federal agencies soared by 782%, Connolly said, quoting figures released by the General Accountability Office. In 2012, federal agencies were targeted by more than 48,000 attacks.

"Cyberattacks now pose the greatest national security threat," Mica said.

Scott Crawford, an analyst for Enterprise Management Associates, said the changes to the aging FISMA were "definitely needed."

"I think the intent of the changes are to motivate in this case government organizations and agencies to take a more proactive approach to security," Crawford said on Monday.

[Also see: Rising cyberthreats set backdrop for latest cybersecurity bill]

The current security checklist in FISMA is a classic example of a compliance approach that has weakened with the evolving sophistication of hackers over the years. An agency that complies with a list of items may be in compliance, but not necessarily secure, Crawford said.

"What they're trying to encourage is the taking of more proactive steps to actually determine the security of an environment through specific techniques, like penetration testing," he said.

Penetration testing, which evaluates computer security through simulation of an attack, is just one of many actions security experts take to protect IT systems. Other approaches include analyzing log data from hardware and software on a network to catch abnormalities.

Other proactive steps include identifying high-priority data resources on a network to ensure they are adequately protected. In addition, patch and configuration management for software are also key to securing computer systems.

Critics have said for some time that a static, compliance-based checklist was ineffective because hackers can work around it and find other ways to target an agency. Money is also wasted because agencies that get a failing grade on a compliance report card often get more money to improve their score on something that doesn't make their IT systems more secure.

The latest FISMA is identical to a bill of the same name that passed the House last year. The Senate never acted on the proposal.

President Obama has made cybersecurity a top priority. In February, he issued and executive order that established a framework for creating voluntary security standards and industry best practices for utilities and other entities defined as critical infrastructure.

The president has also called on Congress to pass legislation that would go much further in mandating cybersecurity standards and requiring the sharing of attack data between private entities and government agencies.

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