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Commerce Department unveils security guidelines for U.S. agencies

October 29, 2002 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Commerce has released the first set of draft information security guidelines (download PDF) intended to fix the "inconsistent and flawed" security assessments of technology used by federal agencies.
The guidelines are aimed at executive branch agencies that handle sensitive but nonclassified material. But because these agencies all now use commercial, off-the-shelf IT systems, the guidelines can be easily applied to private-sector systems.
Federal agencies use a certification and accreditation process to ensure that their systems are secure, and that has been a problem. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), there are numerous competing security certification procedures that are "excessively complex, outdated and costly to implement" and that have yielded systems assessments that "are often inconsistent, flawed and not repeatable with any degree of confidence."
"We would like to move toward the adoption of a standardized process because it allows federal agencies to better understand how their partners are dealing with the security issues," said Ron Ross, co-author of the guidelines. Ross is also a senior computer researcher at NIST and director of the National Information Assurance Partnership, a joint activity of NIST and the National Security Agency.
"If you don't have a standard process, or standard controls as the basis of that understanding, you're all working off different sheets of music," said Ross.
The guidelines are being released in three sections. The first part concerns certification and accreditation, another section looks at system controls, and the third looks at verification procedures and techniques tied to each of the controls. The remaining sections are set to be released next spring.
The guidelines aren't final. NIST is seeking public comment through the end of January. Comments can be submitted at NIST is seeking comment from anyone with an interest in corporate security.
One reason the government would like to hear from the private sector: "The federal government is more or less a microcosm -- we do almost everything in the federal government that goes on in the private sector, as far as logistics, medical, finance. ... We're all using the same basic information technology," said Ross.
In developing the guidelines, Ross said, the agency looked at different processes already available and then adopted some of the best practices. People who use the guidelines can determine their own level of concern and pick the level of system security they need, he said.
The guidelines have a place in the private sector, Ross said.
"We think that these guidelines could be very well applied to the private-sector systems as well," he said. "We would encourage the private sector to look at the guidelines ... and if they can find them useful," tailor them for their own use.
The 78-page NIST report says that a "significant percentage" of federal IT systems in critical-infrastructure areas haven't completed needed security certifications, "thus placing sensitive government information at risk and potentially impacting national and economic security."
There's also a shortage of competent security expertise, NIST said.
In response to those problems, the agency set out to develop standard guidelines and procedures for certifying and accrediting federal IT systems.

Read more about Government IT in Computerworld's Government IT Topic Center.

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