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Federal Agencies Pursue Cybersecurity Common Ground

NIST is working with defense and intelligence agencies to develop cybersecurity specifications that could be applied across government.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology's recently released recommendations for cybersecurity are the first step in a plan to create a common security framework for civilian, military, and intelligence agencies.

The 237-page final version of NIST's Special Publication 800-53, "Recommended Security Controls for Federal Information Systems and Organizations," was released earlier this month. In parallel with that, NIST has been working with defense and intelligence agencies on certification and accreditation, enterprise-wide risk management, procedures to assess cybersecurity controls, and risk assessment. Documents addressing those areas are due over the next few months.

NIST only has a mandate to create security standards for civilian federal agencies, but the intelligence and defense communities have been working with civilian agencies in recent years. In doing so, they're collaborating to create a common set of cybersecurity controls that, among other things, would provide a more consistent market for the industry.

"This way we can work off a single playbook," says NIST senior computer scientist and information security researcher Ron Ross, who drives cybersecurity standards as the lead of NIST's Federal Information Security Management Act implementation project.

Coordination among NIST and the intelligence and defense communities began three years ago when former Department of Defense CIO John Grimes and former Office of the Director of National Intelligence CIO Dale Meyerrose worked together on transforming the certification and accreditation processes for technology products.

NIST got involved and suggested that the three constituencies broaden the scope of their work to include higher-level security controls. Prior to that, the Department of Defense, the federal intelligence community, and NIST were accustomed to developing their own security control recommendations.

In pursuing common standards, Ross says, the government can create standard ways to share information and partner on IT projects, including cybersecurity. He sees standardization as a potential catalyst for developing new cybersecurity products and services for the government market, as vendors would be working from one set of requirements.

The next document NIST will release with help from the intelligence and defense communities will be a revision of Special Publication 800-37, certification and accreditation guidelines published in 2004. A draft of that revision was published 12 months ago. The new document makes certification and accreditation of IT systems more of a continuous process than a one-time activity. Ross expects a final draft of 800-37 in September.

After that, NIST will release what Ross calls a "capstone document" that defines and requires enterprise risk management at various levels within government agencies, including information systems. The document will require that agencies have an individual or board that carries out risk management. A draft of that document will likely be out by the end of the year.

Despite the collaboration, there remains good reason for cybersecurity divergence among military, intelligence, and civilian agencies in some areas. The Department of Defense systems integral to military operations and national security might require a different level of physical security than civilian systems, while real-time intelligence traveling long distances over networks might require different encryption standards than Bureau of Land Management e-mail. In such areas, NIST will allow for differences in approach.

InformationWeek Analytics has published an independent analysis on strategic security. Download the report here (registration required).

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