Standardizing the Federal Desktop

Opinion: It's hard to argue with the Federal Desktop Core Configuration, but you  have to sympathize with the poor IT guys who have to implement it.

The latest in security compliance regulation is the FDCC, or Federal Desktop Core Configuration.

As of Feb. 1, all federal agencies were required to provide to the Office of Management and Budget a list of assets running Windows XP and Windows Vista, and which are compliant with FDCC requirements. By March 31, they will have to submit a technical report on how they will get all the other machines into compliance.

This began with an OMB memo from last March stating that federal agencies with Windows XP and Windows Vista systems will have to use security configurations for those systems, based on standards developed by NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology). The standards have to do with the usual things like not running with admin rights, which ports are open and so on.

Wouldn't it be great if such standards could actually be established and enforced? It should make testing and configuration of applications so much easier, and Microsoft's deployment tools really do help to roll out such configurations.

But federal agencies don't turn on a dime for rules like this. Look at their generally dismal performance complying with FISMA (Federal Information Security Management Act), which only involves reporting, not actual reconfiguration of systems. Many of these agencies don't even know for sure what assets they have.

I spoke with Amrit Williams, CTO of BigFix, which sells compliance testing tools for FDCC and other standards. Williams likes the idea of IT taking a proactive approach to securing systems, as opposed to the usual reactive "scan and patch" approach. What's not to like? But it's happening in a rushed way, Williams said. I have to agree. As much as I like these standards and the idea of standardizing security configurations, it just isn't going to happen as soon as OMB wants it to.

There are many tools that assert that they can scan for FDCC compliance, but none are yet certified for the purpose. Actually, the certification is lacking SCAP (Security Content Automation Protocol), which is a standards-based system for scanning for compliance with various regulations, FDCC among them. But it's another sign of how complicated and immature the whole system is.

There are lots of tools out there to test the security of your systems and their compliance with various requirements, but no clear way for you to meet your legal obligations. And if you were to commit your agency to a specific path to compliance, you'd be committing to an imposing amount of work; Agencies are struggling just to do the automated scanning work, and there are manual checks that must be done as well.

Of course security is always job 1, blah blah blah, but on a day-to-day basis, what people expect from IT is to deliver services and to keep systems running. In the long term, secure and consistent configurations help to do that. However, in the short term, requirements like this get in the way.

When Visa sets rules for PCI compliance and merchants or processors don't comply, especially if there's a scandal, there are consequences. People lose their jobs, I bet, Visa fines vendors (sometimes anyway) and some companies get into real trouble (think CardSystems).

What's going to happen to agencies that don't comply with FDCC in time? A memo will be written by OMB, a congressman will express disappointment and business as usual will go on (unless the new administration appoints an IT security czar). But if they fund it, it will happen eventually.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer's blog Cheap Hack.