The department of energy has done something unusual for a federal agency. It has become an example of excellent cyber-security practice. It has done this by pressuring Oracle to elevate security in its 9i database product—in the process, taking software out of the shadows of “as is” licenses and putting it in the spotlight of a government procurement action. DOEs action could begin a process that improves the security of the technologies available to the public and private sectors alike.
To win this open-ended deal, Oracle promised to deliver its database in a secure configuration and took responsibility for the security of the software going for-
ward. Future patches must be delivered quickly and cannot create new problems or vulnerabilities if Oracle wants to continue getting paid. Its the kind of vendor commitment that every enterprise merits but that only the $59 billion IT buying power of the federal government can effect right now.
Using the federal governments heft to bring about positive change is better than trying to legislate technology security. The legal process moves slower than technology and may mean buying wares that conform to guidelines that are out of date by the time they become law.
Howard Schmidt, former Bush administration security expert, said the federal government should lead by example, rather than legislation, when it comes to security. But the benefits can come only if the government remains committed. Even as the DOE was in talks with Oracle, the Department of Homeland Security was inking a $90 million software pact with Microsoft that sought none of the same sorts of security guarantees. All who depend on the security of these technologies are counting on the feds to use their formidable purchasing power every time to promote real change in the way products are developed, deployed and supported.
Hardball negotiations are but one way the federal government can wield its power. Even as they amend requests for proposals, federal officials should heed the warning implicit in a recent report that lack of software diversity is a root cause of cyber-insecurity. We agree with a report put out by the Computer & Communications Industry Association, in Washington, that asserts that technology environments that are not diverse are inherently vulnerable. While the report was sponsored by Microsoft rivals, its authors are respected security experts, and their basic premise is correct. The diversity principle also applies to non-Microsoft vendors: While Oracle did have to make promises about security, it unfortunately did not have to compete with other vendors to continue the relationship it has enjoyed with the DOE for many years.
Including more technology alternatives in the mix would be a fitting complement to new security-focused contracts and would make our federal government an even better exemplar of cyber-security. ´
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