The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will soon begin releasing formal guidelines federal agencies can use to assess their compliance with a set of mandatory information security rules due to take effect early next year.
The assessment guidelines, to be released in NIST Special Publication 800-53A early next month, are designed to enable periodic testing and evaluation of the security controls federal agencies need to put in place, said Ron Ross, project leader of NIST's Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) Implementation Project.
The mandatory security rules themselves were released in February in a separate NIST document, called Special Publication 800-53 (download PDF). That document details the baseline security controls for different categories of federal information management systems. The security rules cover 17 different areas, including access control, incident response, business continuity and disaster recoverability, and will become a required Federal Information Processing Standard by year's end for all federal systems except those related to national security.
The guidelines are designed to allow federal agencies to assess "if mandated controls have been implemented correctly, are operating as intended and are ... meeting the organization's security requirements," Ross said.
The NIST assessment guidelines are "very closely aligned" to SP 800-53, Ross said. The first draft will detail assessment procedures for five of the 17 security controls described in the February document but will eventually include guidelines for all the rules.
Every security control mandated in SP 800-53 will have an associated assessment method and procedure, Ross said. For example, a security requirement that federal agencies have formal information back-up processes will have an associated procedure describing how compliance can be evaluated, Ross said.
The guide can be used for agency self-assessments, by certification agents and auditors to do independent testing and even by IT systems developers, according to Ross.
"The goal of 800-53A is right on target," said Alan Paller director of research at the SANS Institute, a Washington-based security information center. Too often, a lack of clear guidelines leads to situations where mandated security controls are interpreted in different ways, Paller said. "The greatest mistake is when people write what needs to be done but not how it needs to be done," he said.
How effective the guidelines will be depends on how much detail it provides to information security assessors, Paller said. "If it was written by people who have really protected systems and cleaned up after attacks, it is likely to provide what is absolutely needed," he said. On the other hand, if the document was crafted by "policy people" with little hands-on experience, it may not be of much practical value, he said.
While such assessment guides can be useful, "if a lot of the underpinning details are not addressed it can give a false sense of compliance," said Will Ozier president of OPA Inc., a Vacaville, Calif.-based risk management consultancy.