SCAP for Dummies

Posted October 2nd, 2007 by

SCAP is becoming one of my favorite government acronyms: Security Content Automation Protocol. OK, what does that mean in English? Well, it’s a glue to hold together a whole slew of xml nummie data goodnesses such as the National Vulnerability Database and a standard for asset inventory management.

I was pretty skeptical on SCAP (and the Federal Desktop Core Configuration–FDCC) when it was first announced–like wow, we have yet another obscure memo from Karen Evans that we have to address.

I had a change of heart after I heard the magical phrase “We know it’s going to break things, and we don’t care”. That made me take notice. I thought about it all weekend–I was getting really riled up over such an obvious irresponsible security hard line. But then I found the magic in what they were doing and learned to stop fearing SCAP and embrace the love that it brings. I’ll tell you why.

Imagine you’re Microsoft. You can’t harden down your OS because you have all the applications vendors (including the A-V/Malware guys) raising the big anti-trust flag. And they’re right to do so. Maybe at one point, you could make your software “secure by default” but that was 20 years ago, and if you would have done so, you would have been last to market.

But that doesn’t work to plug the holes in the OS. In my opinion, it’s the lesson of Vista: if you make it stronger, it breaks applications. We all know that, so a design choice is to either leave the holes or give you a nag-screen or a combination of the two. Speaking strictly from the security side of things, that–along with continuous OS patching–is just “polishing a turd”. Yeah, you can make it all shiny on the outside, but deep down inside it’s still nothing pretty.

But now put yourselves in the Government’s shoes: You buy an OS and spend how much time and effort into OS hardening. That’s money you could spend elsewhere. The people at the top of the Government understand this, that’s why they’re always looking at ways to simplify.

OMB and others have been pushing SCAP pretty hard. So far, most of the focus has been on the databases that exist (CVE, NVD) and the desktop configuration (FDCC).

Think about a pre-hardened Government OS. What it does is break applications–applications that are poorly designed. If your application is poorly designed and doesn’t work with the FDCC, then you’re squeezed out of the public sector. The true capitalists here would say something like “let the market decide who the winners are” or something like that. Realistically, if you want a slice of the federal IT budget, then you need to make your software compatible with their hardening standard. They make it easy to do, with tools to test your software and a certification program.

The part that I like about SCAP is that it’s the Government doing what the OS vendors can’t–put pressure on the applications guys. As usual, this should have a trickle-down effect for the private sector, with the beginning being free hardening guides and the vulnerability databases and the end being a comprehensive information security management toolset.

Check out the presentations from the SCAP conference last month. The Tim Grance presentation (.ppt) alone is worth the price of admission.

Right now SCAP is at the national/CISO level. Give it 6 months and it will be at the forefront of what people are doing.

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