How to Not Let FISMA Become a Paperwork Exercise

Posted June 7th, 2010 by

OK, since everybody seems to think that FISMA is some evil thing that needs reform, this is the version of events on “Planet Rybolov”:

Goals to surviving FISMA, based on all the criticisms I’ve read:

  • Reduce paperwork requirements. Yes, some is needed.  Most is not.
  • Reduce cost. There is much repetition in what we’re doing now, it borders on fraud, waste, and abuse.
  • Increase technical effectiveness. IE, get from the procedural and managerial tasks and get down into the technical parts of security.

“Uphold our Values-Based Compliance Culture photo by kafka4prez.

So now, how do you keep from letting FISMA cripple you or turn into death-by-compliance:

  • Prioritize. 25% of your controls need to not fail 100% of the time.  These are the ones that you test in-depth and more frequently.  Honestly, how often does your risk assessment policy get updated v/s your patch management?  Believe it or not, this is in SP 800-53R3 if you interpret it in the correct context.  More importantly, do not let your auditors dictate your priorities.
  • Use common controls and shared infrastructure. Explicitly tell your system owners and ISSOs what you are providing as the agency CISO and/or the GSS that they are riding on.  As much as I hate meetings, if you own a General Support System (GSS), infrastructure (LAN/WAN, AD Forest, etc), or common controls (agency-wide policy, budget, Security Operations Center, etc), you have a fiduciary, legal, and moral obligation to get together with your constituency (the people who rely on the security you provide) and explain what it is you provide and allow them to tell you what additional support they need.
  • Share Assessment Results. I’m talking about results from service providers with other agencies and systems.  We’re overtesting on the high-level stuff that doesn’t change and not on the detailed stuff that does change.  This is the nature of security assessments in that you start at the top and work your way down into the details, only most assessments don’t get down into the details because they’re busy reworking the top-level stuff over and over again.  Many years ago as a contractor managing infrastructure that multiple agencies used, it was unbelievably hard to get one agency to allow me to share security documents and assessment results with other agencies.  Shared assessment results mean that you can cut through the repetitious nature of what you’re doing and progressively get deeper into the technical, frequently-changing security aspects.
  • Simplify the Paperwork. Yes, you still need to document what you’re doing, but the days of free-text prose and being graded on grammar and punctuation need to be over.  Do the controls section of System Security Plans as a Requirement Traceability Matrix.  More important than that, you need to go by-control by-component.  If you are hiring contractors and their job is to do copypasta directly from NIST documents and change the pronouns and tenses, you’re doing it wrong.  Don’t stand for that in your security policy or anything else that you do.
  • Automate Wherever Possible. Note that the controls that change frequently and that need to not fail usually fit into this group.  It’s one of those “Things that make Rybolov go ‘Hmmmm'”.  Technology and automation provide both the problem and the solution.  Also see my first point up above.
  • Fire 50% of Your Security Staff. Yes, I’m serious.  Those people you didn’t need anyway, primarily because they’re violating all the points I’ve made so far.  More importantly, 25 clueless people can mess things up faster than 5 clueful people can fix them, and that’s a problem for me.  Note that this does not apply to @csoandy, his headcount is A-OK.

The incredible thing to me is that this stuff is already there.  NIST writes “hooks” into their Special Publications to allow the smart people the room to do all these things.

And now the part where I hop up on my soapbox:  reforming FISMA by new legislation will not make any achievements above and beyond what we have today (with the exception of creating a CISO-esque position for the Exective Branch) because of the nature of audit and compliance.  In a public policy sense, the more items you have in legislation, the more the audit burden increases and the amount of repetition increases, and the amount of nonsense controls (ie, AntiVirus for Linux servers) increases.  Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.

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Posted in FISMA, NIST, Rants, Risk Management, What Doesn't Work, What Works | 2 Comments »

“Machines Don’t Cause Risk, People Do!”

Posted May 26th, 2010 by

A few weeks back I read an article on an apparent shift in emphasis in government security… OMB outlines shift on FISMA” take a moment to give it a read. I’ll wait….

That was followed by NASA’s “bold move” to change the way they manage risk

Once again the over-emphasis and outright demagoguery on “compliance,” “FISMA reports,” “paper exercises,” and similar concepts that occupy our security geek thoughts have not given way to enlightenment. (At least “compliancy” wasn’t mentioned…) I was saddened by a return to the “FISMA BAD” school of thought so often espoused by the luminaries at SANS. Now NASA has leapt from the heights… At the risk of bashing Alan Paller yet again, I am often turned off by the approach of “being able to know the status of every machine at every minute, ” – as if machines by themselves cause bad security… It’s way too tactical (incorrect IMHO) and too easy to make that claim.

Hence the title of this rant – Machines don’t cause risk, people do!

The “people” I’m talking about are everyone from your agency director, down to the lowliest sysadmin… The problem? They may not be properly educated or lack the necessary skills for their position – another (excellent) point brought forth in the first article. Most importantly, even the most seasoned security veteran operating without a strategic vision within a comprehensive security program (trained people, budget, organizational will, technology and procedures) based upon the FISMA framework will be doomed to failure. Likewise, having all the “toys” in the world means nothing without a skilled labor force to operate them and analyze their output. (“He who dies with the most toys is still dead.”) Organizations and agency heads that do not develop and support a comprehensive security program that incorporates the NIST Risk Management Framework as well as the other facets listed above will FAIL. This is nothing new or revolutionary, except I don’t think we’ve really *done* FISMA yet. As I and others have said many times, it’s not about the paper, or the cost per page – it’s about the repeatable processes — and knowledgeable people — behind what the paper describes.

I also note the somewhat disingenuous mention of the risk management program at the State Department in the second article… As if that were all State was doing! What needs to be noted here is that State has approached security in the proper way, IMHO — from a Strategic, or Enterprise level. They have not thrown out the figurative baby with the bath water by dumping everything else in their security program in favor of the risk scoring system or some other bright, shiny object. I know first-hand from having worked with many elements in the diplomatic security hierarchy at State – these folks get it. They didn’t get to the current level of goodness in the program by decrying (dare I say whining about?) “paper.” They made the organizational commitment to providing contract vehicles for system owners to use to develop their security plans and document risk in Plans of Action and Milestones (POA&Ms). Then they provided the money to get it done. Is the State program a total “paragon of virtue?” Probably not, but the bottom line is that it’s an effective program.

Mammoth Strategy, Same as Last Year

Mammoth Strategy, Same as Last Year image by

Desiring to know everything about everything may seem to some to be a worthy goal, but may be beyond many organization’s budgets. *Everything* is a point in time snapshot, no matter how many snapshots you take or how frequently you take them. Continuous, repeatable security processes followed by knowledgeable, responsible practitioners are what government needs. But you cannot develop these processes without starting from a larger, enterprise view. Successful organizations follow this–dare I say it–axiom whether discussing security governance, or system administration.

Government agencies need to concentrate on developing agency-wide security strategies that encompass, but do not concentrate on solely, what patch is on what machine, and what firewall has which policy. Likewise, system POA&Ms need to concentrate on higher-level strategic issues that affect agencies — things like changes to identity management schemes that will make working from home more practical and less risky for a larger percentage of the workforce. Or perhaps a dashboard system that provides the status of system authorization for the agency at-a-glance. “Burying your head in a foxhole” —becoming too tactical — is akin to burying it in the sand, or like getting lost in a bunch of trees that look like a forest. When organizations behave this way, everything becomes a threat, therefore they spray their resource firepower on the “threat of the day, or hour.”

An organization shouldn’t worry about patching servers if its perimeter security is non-existent. Developing the larger picture, while letting some bullets strike you, may allow you recognize threats, prioritize them, potentially allowing you to expend minimal resources to solve the largest problem. This approach is the one my organization is following today. It’s a crawl first, then walk, then run approach. It’s enabled management to identify, segregate, and protect critical information and resources while giving decision-makers solid information to make informed, risk-based decisions. We’ll get to the patches, but not until we’ve learned to crawl. Strangely, we don’t spend a lot of time or other organizational resources on “paper drills” — we’re actively performing security tasks, strategic and tactical that follow documented procedures, plans and workflows! Oh yes, there is the issue of scale. Sorry, I think over 250 sites in every country around the world, with over 62 different government customers tops most enterprises, government or otherwise, but then this isn’t about me or my organization’s accomplishments.

In my view, professional security education means providing at least two formal paths for security professionals – the one that SANS instantiates is excellent for administrators – i.e., folks operating on the tactical level. I believe we have these types of security practitioners in numbers. We currently lack sufficient seasoned professionals – inside government – who can approach security strategically, engaging agency management with plans that act both “globally” and “locally.” Folks like these exist in government but they are few. Many live in industry or the contractor space. Not even our intelligence community has a career path for security professionals! Government as a whole lacks a means to build competence in the security discipline. Somehow government agencies need to identify security up-and-comers within government and nurture them. What I’m calling for here is a government-sponsored internal mentorship program – having recognized winners in the security game mentor peers and subordinates.

Until we security practitioners can separate the hype from the facts, and can articulate these facts in terms management can understand and support, we will never get beyond the charlatans, headline grabbers and other “self-licking ice cream cones.” Some might even look upon this new, “bold initiative” by NASA as quitting at a game that’s seen by them as “too hard.” I doubt seriously that they tried to approach the problem using a non-academic, non-research approach. It needed to be said. Perhaps if the organization taking the “bold steps” were one that had succeeded at implementing the NIST guidance, there might be more followers, in greater numbers.

Perhaps it’s too hard because folks are merely staring at their organization’s navel and not looking at the larger picture?

Lastly, security needs to be approached strategically as well as tactically. As Sun Tzu said, “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

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Posted in FISMA, NIST, Public Policy, Rants, Risk Management, What Doesn't Work, What Works | 14 Comments »

A Funny Thing Happened Last Week on Capital Hill

Posted April 1st, 2010 by

Well, several funny things happened, they happen every week.  But specifically I’m talking about the hearing in the House Committee on Homeland Security on FISMA reform–Federal Information Security: Current Challenges and Future Policy Considerations.  If you’re in information security and Government, you need to go read through the prepared statements and even watch the hearing.

Also referenced is HR.4900 which was introduced by Representative Watson as a modification to FISMA.  I also recommend that you have a look at it.

Now for my comments and rebuttals to the testimony:

  • On the cost per sheet of FISMA compliance paper: If you buy into the State Department’s cost of $1700 per sheet, you’re absolutely daft.  The cost of a security program divided by the total number of sheets of paper is probably right.  In fact, if you do the security bits right, your cost per sheet will go up considerably because you’re doing much more security work while the volume of paperwork is reduced.
  • Allocating budget for red teams: Do we really need penetration testing to prove that we have problems?  In Mike Smith’s world, we’re just not there yet, and proving that we’re not there is just an excuse to throw the InfoSec practitioners under the bus when they’re not the people who created the situation in the first place.
  • Gus Guissanie: This guy is awesome and knows his stuff.  No, really, the guy is sharp.
  • State Department Scanning: Hey, it almost seems like NIST has this in 800-53.  Oh wait, they do, only it’s given the same precedence as everything else.  More on this later.
  • Technical Continuous Monitoring Tools: Does anybody else think that using products of FISMA (SCAP, CVE, CVSS) as evidence that FISMA is failing is a bit like dividing by zero?  We really have to be careful of this or we’ll destroy the universe.
  • Number of Detected Attacks and Incidents as a Metric: Um, this always gets a “WTF?” from me.  Is the number increasing because we’re monitoring better or is it because we’re counting a whole bunch of small events as an attack (ie, IDS flagged on something), or is it because the amount of attacks are really increasing?  I asked this almost 2 years ago and nobody has answered it yet.
  • The Limitations of GAO: GAO are just auditors.  Really, they depend on the agencies to not misrepresent facts and to give them an understanding of how their environment works.  Auditing and independent assessment is not the answer here because it’s not a fraud problem, it’s a resources and workforce development problem.
  • OMB Metrics: I hardly ever talk bad about OMB, but their metrics suck.  Can you guys give me a call and I’ll give you some pointers?  Or rather, check out what I’ve already said about federated patch and vulnerability management then give me a call.

So now for Rybolov’s plan to fix FISMA:

  1. You have to start with workforce management. This has been addressed numerous times and has a couple of different manifestations: DoDI 8570.10, contract clauses for levels of experience, role-based training, etc.  Until you have an adequate supply of clueful people to match the demand, you will continue to get subpar performance.
  2. More testing will not help, it’s about execution. In the current culture, we believe that the more testing we do, the more likely the people being tested will be able to execute.  This is highly wrong and I’ve commented on it before.  I think that if it was really a fact of people being lazy or fraudulent then we would have fixed it by now.  My theory is that the problem is that we have too many wonks who know the law but not the tech and not enough techs that know the law.  In order to do the job, you need both.  This is also where I deviate from the SANS/20 Critical Security Controls approach and the IGs that love it.
  3. Fix Plans of Actions and Milestones. These are supposed to be long-term/strategic problems, not the short-term/tactical application of patches–the tactical stuff should be automated.  The reasoning is that you use these plans for budget requests for the following years.
  4. Fix the budget train. Right now the people with the budget (programs) are not the people running the IT and the security of it (CIO/CISO).  I don’t know if the answer here is a larger dedicated budget for CISO’s staff or a larger “CISO Tax” on all program budgets.  I could really policy-geek out on you here, just take my word for it that the people with the money are not the people protecting information and until you account for that, you will always have a problem.

Sights Around Capital Hill: Twice Sold Tales photo by brewbooks. Somehow seems fitting, I’ll let you figure out if there’s a connection. =)

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Posted in FISMA, Public Policy, Rants, Risk Management | 7 Comments »

GAO’s 5 Steps to “Fix” FISMA

Posted July 2nd, 2009 by

Letter from GAO on how Congress can fix FISMA.  And oh yeah, the press coverage on it.

Now supposedly this was in response to an inquiry from Congress about “Please comment on the need for improved cyber security relating to S.773, the proposed Cybersecurity Act of 2009.”  This is S.773.

GAO is mixing issues and has missed the mark on what Congress asked for.  S.773 is all about protecting critical infrastructure.  It only rarely mentions government internal IT issues.  S.773 has nothing at all to do with FISMA reform.  However, GAO doesn’t have much expertise in cybersecurity outside of the Federal Agencies (they have some, but I would never call it extensive), so they reported on what they know.

The GAO report used the often-cited metric of an increase in cybersecurity attacks against Government IT systems growing from “5,503 incidents reported in fiscal year 2006 to 16,843 incidents in fiscal year 2008” as proof that the agencies are not doing anything to fix the problem.  I’ve questioned these figures before, it’s associated with the measurement problem and increased reporting requirements more than an increase in attacks.  Truth be told, nobody knows if the attacks are increasing and, if so, at what rate.  I would guess they’re increasing, but we don’t know, so quit citing some “whacked” metric as proof.

Reform photo by shevy.

GAO’s recommendations for FISMA Reform:

Clarify requirements for testing and evaluating security controls.  In other words, the auditing shall continue until the scores improve.  Hate to tell you this, but really all you can test at the national level is if the FISMA framework is in place, the execution of the framework (and by extension, if an agency is secure or not) is largely untestable using any kind of a framework.

Require agency heads to provide an assurance statement on the overall adequacy and effectiveness of the agency’s information security program.  This is harkening back to the accounting roots of GAO.  Basically what we’re talking here is for the agency head to attest that his agency has made the best effort that it can to protect their IT.  I like part of this because part of what’s missing is “executive support” for IT security.  To be honest, though, most agency heads aren’t IT security dweebs, they would be signing an assurance statement based upon what their CIO/CISO put in the executive summary.

Enhance independent annual evaluations.  This has significant cost implications.  Besides, we’re getting more and more evaluations as time goes on with an increase in audit burden.  IE, in the Government IT security space, how much of your time is spent providing proof to auditors versus building security?  For some people, it’s their full-time job.

Strengthen annual reporting mechanisms.  More reporting.  I don’t think it needs to get strengthened, I think it needs to get “fixed”.  And by “fixed” I mean real metrics.  I’ve touched on this at least a hundred times, go check out some of it….

Strengthen OMB oversight of agency information security programs.  This one gives me brain-hurt.  OMB has exactly the amount of oversight that they need to do their job.  Just like more auditing, if you increase the oversight and the people doing the execution have the same amount of people and the same amount of funding and the same types of skills, do you really expect them to perform differently?

Rybolov’s synopsis:

When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, and I think that’s what GAO is doing here.  Since performance in IT security is obviously down, they suggest that more auditing and oversight will help.  But then again, at what point does the audit burden tip to the point where nobody is really doing any work at all except for answering to audit requests?

Going back to what Congress really asked for, We run up against a problem.  There isn’t a huge set of information about how the rest of the nation is doing with cybersecurity.  There’s the Verizon DBIR, the Data Loss DB, some surveys, and that’s about it.

So really, when you ask GAO to find out what the national cybersecurity situation is, all you’re going to get is a bunch of information about how government IT systems line up and maybe some anecdotes about critical infrastructure.

Coming to a blog near you (hopefully soon): Rybolov’s 5 steps to “fix” FISMA.

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Posted in FISMA | 2 Comments »

IKANHAZFIZMA Tackles the Consensus Audit Guidelines

Posted February 26th, 2009 by

CAG Fever… we haz it here at Guerilla-CISO.  So far the konsensus is that CAG works well as a “Best Practices” document but not really as an auditable standard.  We’re thinking that CAG will provide the rope with which our IGs and GAO will hang us.

funny pictures

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Posted in IKANHAZFIZMA | 3 Comments »

Assessment Cases for 800-53A Are Available

Posted August 25th, 2008 by

Ever feel lost and lonely when staring at the business end of an ST&E?  Confounded and confused considering Configuration controls?  Perplexed and Puzzled at Planning procedures?  Anxious or amazed at Audit and Accountability assessments?  Annoyed at aimless alliteration?

NIST has heard your muttered curses and answered them!  (Except the annoying alliteration, which is my fault.)

Now available are the Assessment Cases for Special Publication 800-53A.  The Assessment Cases offer supplemental guidance on assessing security controls found in the recently released SP 800-53A Guide for Assessing the Security Controls in Federal Information Systems (PDF Warning).  These documents are in their Initial Public Draft so be sure to give them a look and provide some feedback.

The Assessment Cases contain consensus recommendations from the Assessment Cases Project on specific actions to perform when assessing security controls.  These specific actions are intended to complement the assessment procedures documented in NIST SP 800-53A.   Yes, you heard that right, Specific Actions.  Less time spent pondering how to “Examine: … other relevant documents or records”.

The Assessment Cases Project is an inter-agency workgroup headed by DoJ with members including NIST, DoE, DoT and ODNI-CIO.  Many thanks for the hard work of this workgroup’s membership.  You may not be able to hear it but I am applauding on this side of the keyboard.  And a big thanks to Patrick O’Reilly for pointing me to this wonderful resource.

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Posted in FISMA, NIST, What Works | 1 Comment »

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