8/9/2011
10:52 AM
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State Department, Auditors Clash On IT Security Monitoring

GAO says the department's iPost risk-scoring program doesn't handle non-Windows systems or sufficiently detail vulnerabilities, and fails to reflect the impact and likelihood of threats.



Inside DHS' Classified Cyber-Coordination Headquarters
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Slideshow: Inside DHS' Classified Cyber-Coordination Headquarters
The federal government's new regime for cybersecurity compliance, which leans heavily on continuous monitoring of IT system security, was supposed to cut back on the arduous and unnecessary paperwork that has historically been required. But Congressional auditors are now butting heads with the Department of State on just how much documentation should be required.

In an audit of the State Department's IT security controls, the Government Accountability Office determined that the agency's custom iPost risk-scoring program doesn't sufficiently detail vulnerabilities, doesn't update data completely or frequently enough, and doesn't have processes in place to adequately validate the data that iPost uses.

GAO also raised additional concerns, such as iPost addresses Windows systems but not other devices like routers and switches and non-Windows systems, that its scoring system fails to reflect the impact and likelihood of threats, and that it should include more risk factors.

GAO recommended that State develop procedures to validate iPost data and document those procedures, identify within iPost the individuals responsible for monitoring IT security at the agency, develop and document an iPost configuration management process, and better address actual risk and impact of attack.

In response, State argued that the GAO's recommendations in some places conflicted with the purpose of doing away with paperwork compliance in favor of continuous monitoring. For example, requiring State to document all its controls would mean documenting hundreds of weekly software changes that quickly become outdated. "Further documentation is of questionable value, given the volatility of the security environment," the agency wrote in response to the GAO.

State uses iPost, a custom application, to monitor the agency's IT systems worldwide. Enterprise management and monitoring software feeds data into iPost, including data on vulnerabilities, security compliance, patch level, operating environment configuration, and user account details. That data winds up in a dashboard that provides an overview of IT security at different State Department locations, and is the basis of a risk scoring system in which a higher score indicates that a location or set of host systems is at a higher risk.

The wealth of data and the scores aim to encourage system administrators to reduce risk and improve security for particular hosts or locations, and provides IT managers with both detailed and blunt measures of location- and agency-wide IT security. The system has gotten plaudits in the past, and the Department of State, and its CISO, John Streufert, have been on the leading edge of the continuous monitoring push in the federal government.

What industry can teach government about IT innovation and efficiency. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek Government: Federal agencies have to shift from annual IT security assessments to continuous monitoring of their risks. Download it now. (Free registration required.)

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