Feds Spur Security Plan

NIAP readies guidelines that would lock down networks.

The federal government is pushing ahead with its agenda to improve the security of public and private networks, working to garner support for key components and developing plans to refocus the National Information Assurance Partnership.

Specifically, the NIAP is crafting two sets of security guidelines to help federal agencies lock down their networks, and many industry observers expect the provisions in the drafts to show up in recommendations for the private sector as well. The first draft, due Oct. 28, will spell out a lengthy process that IT personnel can use to certify that their systems are running securely. The second, which will be published Nov. 11, details sets of security controls that federal networks should have to be considered secure, depending on their sensitivity level.

"We have taken into account [international standards] so that these guidelines can be applied to the private sector," said Marianne Swanson, senior adviser for IT security management at the National Institute for Standards and Technology, in Gaithersburg, Md. "We can only recommend, but these are all best practices. We havent pulled anything out of the ordinary. They should be used."

Both drafts will be available for comment for three months, Swanson said.

The guidelines come at a time when the NIAPs mission and position in the governments security plans are evolving rapidly. The group is a partnership between the NIST and the National Security Agency and at present serves mainly as a clearinghouse for testing and certifying the security of software and hardware products. Federal agencies are strongly encouraged to buy products that have been NIAP-certified, but many agencies ignore that advice because of the limited choices available.

The NIAP is working to develop a program to certify that products are secure in their typical configurations as well as in their design. Security experts say this would be a breakthrough in the way that both the government and vendors treat security.

"That would add enormous value to NIAP because it would ensure that systems that meet their certification by design also meet it in configuration," said Alan Paller, director of research at The SANS Institute, in Bethesda, Md. "The push-back will come from software vendors. They like to be tested once and not be constrained in any way in how they market their stuff."

Enterprise users, however, are skeptical that the government will be able to have much effect on the overall security of products and corporate networks.

"I dont think theres a whole lot the government can do to mandate changes in corporate policies," said Eric Stromberg, senior electrical engineer at Dow Chemical Co., based in Midland, Mich. "Their only real power over corporations is in either tax law or fines. If they could somehow tie [security] to tax rates or security breaches to fines, theyd have something."

Meanwhile, Richard Clarke, chairman of the Presidents Critical Infrastructure Protection Board, last week tried to rally support among IT managers for one of the boards more controversial proposals, the Internet NOC (network operations center). Clarke, speaking in Washington at a user conference for Symantec Corp. customers, offered assurances that the NOC would not be used to eavesdrop on e-mail and Internet traffic but would serve simply as a coordination and early- warning center.

Critics have argued that the governments collection and correlation of security data could lead to privacy problems. However, many people in the security community say such a central point of analysis is sorely needed inside the federal government.

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