A Niche to a Niche is Still Hard to Staff

Posted July 10th, 2008 by

I’ve touched on this about a bazillion times, let me start today with a very simple statement:  due to the scale of the US Government, we cannot find enough skilled security people.

Part of the problem is that good security people need to know the following skills:

  • IT technology: since the data more often than not is in a computer, you need to understand them
  • People technology: policies and procedures for managing people
  • Business sense:  understanding that you’re supporting business goals
  • And for Government:  politics

Back when I was PFC Rybolov, my battalion commander told me something along the lines of “The intelligence world is a hard job, you have to be able to out-infantry the infantry, out-mechanic the mechanics, out-radio the radio guys, and you need to know a language.”  Security is pretty much the same thing–you have to out-techie the techies, out-business the MBAs, and out-jerkify the auditors.  =)

Sound complicated?  Yes, it is, and it’s hard to find people who can do all this.  IT is an employment niche, IT security is a niche to a niche.  And there isn’t enough people who have the experience to do it.

So how do we mitigate the staffing shortage?  Here is what we are doing today in the Government:

  • CyberCorps scholarship program for undergrads and graduate students with a minimum government service obligation.
  • Using other career fields in “crossover roles”–yes, accountants can be used for some light security tasks.  Some things that we think of as security are really Quality Assurance and Change Control jobs that we have a vested interest in making work.
  • Using contractors in some roles such as ISSO, ISSM, etc.
  • Automation as much as possible.  Technical is easier, the policy and procedures side takes longer.  What you’ll find out eventually is that good IT management is good security management.
  • Hanging on methodologies to “automate” the process side of security.

Now this is cool and all, but it’s hard to sustain and really hard to justify as a long-term solution.  In order to support the Government, we need to create more people.  Cybercorps is a start, but the need is so much larger than the supply that we have to consider better ways to create Government security dweebs.

Do we need Security Awareness and Training?  Yes we do, but much more than what is being provided (think system administrator training and procurement specialist training, not end-user training), and as an internal recruiting pipeline.  Still, I don’t think that we can recruit enough people to “the dark side” and that we need to look outside the Beltway for people.  Problem is that DC is such an insular community and we don’t speak the same language as the rest of the world.

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Posted in FISMA, What Doesn't Work, What Works | 8 Comments »

Monks, Compliance, Risk, and Government

Posted July 7th, 2008 by

The Abbot at the Security Monastery takes us through an interesting tour of compliance, risk management, and what the Government is doing.  I’m not biased at all because it’s based on conversations with me or anything like that.  =)

Now for those of you who don’t know me personally, here’s a little bit of trivia for you:  Every week I go back and forth between “wow, we’re doing great things above and beyond what the private sector knows about” and “culturally, security in the Government will never work because you’re trying to do risk management in a zero-defects world”.

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Posted in FISMA | 2 Comments »

SP 800-53A Now Finally Final

Posted July 1st, 2008 by

The perpetual draft document, SP 800-53A, has been officially released after 3 years.  Check out the announcement from NIST here.

Now the interesting thing to me is that NIST is working with some other players (DNI comes to mind) on reference implementations of 800-53A.  This is big, so big that I can’t add enough hyperbole to it.

Why do they need to do reference implementations?  Well, because by itself, SP 800-53A is dangerous if it’s given to people who “don’t get it”.  By that what I mean is this:

  • SP 800-53 needs tailoring to distill into actual requirements.
  • SP 800-53A needs a huge amount of tailoring to distill into test cases/procedures that match the tailoring that you did with 800-53.
  • Taken at face value, 800-53 and 800-53A become the source of “death by compliance”.
  • If you think the auditors could grill you to death with 800-53, 800-53A gives them tons more material.

Now time for a war story: I worked on a project where the contractor was having a hard time building a security program, mostly because they didn’t have the right staff to get the job done.  The government told the contractor to use 800-53A as a starting point, and 6 months of insanity followed with 13 “security engineers” in a conference room cranking out documentation that had no basis in reality.  At the end of it all, the contractor handed the Government a bill for $1M.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like the ideas behind 800-53A, but the first thing you need to know when you start using it is when you shouldn’t use it:

  • Don’t run test procedures on every computer you have, use an automated tool and do spot-checks to validate that the automated tool works.
  • Use less test procedures on low-criticality systems.
  • “This procedure is conducted as part of the hardening validation process.”
  • Common controls are even more important because you do not want the repetition of effort.

And whatever you do, don’t let 800-53A turn your risk management into a compliance activity.  It has all the potential to do that.

US Government Docs

US Government Doc’s photo by Manchester Library.

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Posted in FISMA, NIST, Risk Management, What Doesn't Work, What Works | 12 Comments »

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