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News Analysis

Challenges await Obama in bid to build up federal IT security

President Bush is leaving several ongoing IT security projects to his successor. But even more work is needed to protect federal systems.

December 1, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - As President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take office, the task of upgrading the security of federal computer systems continues to be a work in progress.

Several cybersecurity initiatives launched during the Bush administration are still years away from being completed. Others are closer to completion but don't do enough by themselves to defend networks and systems against increasingly sophisticated attacks, according to IT security analysts.

And, they said, resolving the security issues will require Obama to focus on more than just finishing the ongoing initiatives.

For starters, he needs to end the policy of tying federal cybersecurity efforts so closely to the post-9/11 war on terror, said Gartner Inc. analyst John Pescatore. "The terrorist attacks sent the Bush administration in the wrong direction" on cybersecurity, Pescatore said, adding that more immediate threats to federal systems have been overlooked.

Progress has been made, claimed Karen Evans, administrator of e-government and IT at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Evans said several security initiatives launched over the past few years are already making, or will soon make, a difference.

At the top of her list is a 2004 mandate by President Bush that required federal agencies to issue new smart-card identity credentials to all employees and contractors. But even that program hasn't been fully implemented. Agencies were supposed to finish issuing the new ID cards in late October, but most will need at least two more years to do so.

Other projects that Evans pointed to include a recent upgrade of federal networks to the more secure IPv6 protocol and the Trusted Internet Connections program, under which agencies are working to reduce their external network connections.

Evans also cited the Federal Desktop Core Configuration (FDCC) project, which is aimed at cutting costs and boosting security by requiring agencies to employ standard security settings on all Windows PCs.

Earlier this year, President Bush also put in motion a highly classified, multiagency program called the Cyber Initiative, with a goal of bolstering the nation's ability to detect and respond to cyberthreats against critical infrastructure targets.

Tom Kellerman, vice president of security awareness at Core Security Technologies in Boston, said the Cyber Initiative marked an "awakening" in Washington about the need for stronger cybersecurity efforts.

But Kellerman, who is a member of a commission that's developing cybersecurity recommendations for Obama, said much remains to be done. "The existing administration has only just begun to pay attention to cybersecurity" as a national security issue, he said.

Many of the ongoing initiatives are helping to improve security in bits and pieces, Pescatore said. But, he added, they were the result of "random edicts" from the OMB, not broad cybersecurity objectives.

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