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Feds: Cloud Computing Doesn't Increase Security Risk

Administration officials tell Congress cloud security problems are no worse than other IT risks.
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Federal officials defended their move to adopt cloud computing, stressing steps federal agencies are taking to ensure the technology does not present greater cybersecurity risks than already exist today, on Capitol Hill Thursday.

"Our problems with security are not unique to cloud-computing systems," David McClure, associate administrator for the General Services Administration's (GSA's) Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, told the House Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies in a hearing about the security implications of the federal government's aggressive move to the cloud.

McClure was responding to a question by committee chairman Rep. Dan Lungren, who argued that the federal government has a responsibility to those who question whether cloud computing is a more easily penetrable system than in-house and legacy systems.

[The feds are taking a new approach to fighting national security threats. Learn more: Homeland Security Revamps Cyber Arm.]

To ease their fears, Lungren said, "you've got to have a promise that the security of the cloud is going to be measurably better than the security we have in the current system."

McClure agreed, but said that new security controls and standards the feds are working on will do that, although it's important to shore up cybersecurity across the board and not merely to protect new cloud systems.

Still, even if security measures won't convince doubters, cloud computing is something that is "inevitable" for the federal government to achieve cost-cutting goals and to keep up with where technology trends are going, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) CIO Richard Spires told the committee.

"Cloud computing is going to transform IT as things become more commoditized," he said. "We need to move to it."

The key measure agencies are taking to secure the use of both public and private cloud systems is the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, or FedRAMP, which centralizes security for cloud computing, addressing three critical problems that McClure outlined before the House Thursday.

The system will set up baseline security controls and continuous monitoring requirements, maintain assessment criteria for the security of cloud systems, and maintain an active inventory of approved systems, he said.

Officials, who introduced FedRAMP a year and a half ago, had said the program would be activated Oct. 1, but McClure said Thursday that it's coming "soon."

Once implemented, FedRAMP also will approve third parties to carry out government-wide security authorizations for cloud systems that then will be posted on a public website, making agencies more accountable for their security.

McClure said officials already have agreed on security controls for FedRAMP, and said that continuous monitoring will be the next step to making not just cloud implementations, but all agency systems more secure.

Indeed, continuous monitoring is a protection the feds are determined to implement. To this end, a new requirement of the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) holds agencies' feet to the fire. Agencies now must report security data monthly to an online compliance tool called Cyberscope to ensure compliance with FISMA, the standard for federal IT security.

Still, Gregory Wilshusen, director of information security issues for from the Government Accountability Office--who also testified before the panel Thursday--painted a slightly less optimistic picture of the feds' current cloud security efforts than his counterparts.

His testimony pointed out that cloud computing can indeed create new security risks, and agencies' efforts to address these risks remain incomplete, even as they already are deploying the cloud.

"Federal agencies have taken several steps to address our recommendations on cloud computing security, but more remains to be done," Wilshusen said.

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