Security Industry Vies for Federal Network Monitoring Contracts

The push to improve security at federal agencies could mean as much as $6 billion for security firms that win the coveted contracts.

The U.S. government's push to improve the security of its civilian, intelligence and military agencies has attracted enormous interest from the security industry, with almost two dozen teams of companies competing for a piece of a $6 billion budget over the next five years for deploying systems that will continuously monitor the security status of networks and systems.

In 2010, the U.S. Congress updated the Federal Information Security Management Act, or FISMA, requiring that federal agencies move away from annual compliance and toward monitoring their security status on a daily, or continuous, basis.

In December, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a request for quote (RFQ) for companies to bid on building a subset of monitoring features, known as the continuous diagnostics and mitigation (CDM) project, that focus on discovering and managing hardware and software assets, patches and vulnerabilities. At stake is about $170 million set aside for the project in the federal budget.

"This is a must win for all these companies, because it is the first wave of what could be a $6 billion program," said Niels Jensen, regional vice president for federal services at ForeScout Technologies, a maker of network access control (NAC) systems.

Following regular breaches of federal agency networks and less than impressive grades on the annual FISMA report card, Congress decided to put the Department of Homeland Security on notice for the move to continuous monitoring because civilian agencies were having trouble selecting and deploying appropriate solutions.

Only 22 percent of agencies had met the original FISMA deadline for deploying a continuous monitoring system within their organization by September 2011, according to a survey released by RedSeal Networks, a network monitoring and management firm. Even with the deadline extended to September 2012, only 45 percent of the federal agencies said they expected to be able to monitor key aspects of their organization's IT security, the survey found.

The problem is that many civilian agencies do not have the budget, resources or skills to deploy the necessary technology to monitor their networks for misconfigurations, vulnerabilities and threats. Still, some agencies do not want to turn over control to another agency, such as the DHS. Yet, the administration appears to be taking a firm stance, according to ForeScout's Jensen.

"Any time an organization asks for money for anything that seems related to continuous monitoring, they are pushed toward talking to the DHS," he said.

The project comes as attacks on agencies have increased dramatically. In 2010, the Department of Homeland Security detected nearly 8,000 incidents, up from approximately 2,100 two years earlier. In addition, a far greater number of those threats were related to malware—84 percent in 2010 compared with 39 percent in 2008, according to a DHS presentation on the CDM project.

Federal agencies that deploy the technology should reduce their risk by nearly 90 percent, the DHS stated.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...