Obama looks to avoid more Wikileaks-type incidents

President issues executive order aimed at boosting, standardizing federal data security measures

President Obama Friday issued an executive order aimed at better securing data stored by federal agencies.

The order appears to be a response to the exposure of classified data by WikiLeaks, which posted information provided by Bradley Manning, a relatively low-level Army intelligence officer who last year downloaded thousands of documents from secure networks and handed them over to whistleblower site.

Obama's order focuses mostly on creating committees and task forces that would be responsible for overseeing access to classified networks and data controlled by federal agencies.

The order requires the heads of all federal agencies to appoint a senior official to oversee the implementation of measures for controlling and monitoring access to classified information. The official is also required to put in place an insider threat-detection and prevention program and to oversee the agency's compliance with new policies and standards governing the access and use of classified data.

The president's order also establishes a new Information Sharing and Safeguarding Steering Committee, a Classified Information Sharing and Safeguarding Office (CISSO) and an interagency Insider Threat Task Force.

The steering committee will be responsible for coordinating the development of new interagency policies and standards for safeguarding and sharing classified information on government networks. The committee will be co-chaired by an executive from the White House Office of Management and Budget and will include representatives from the Departments of State, Justice, Homeland Security (DHS), the CIA, the National Security Agency and other agencies.

The insider threat task force will be headed by the U.S. Attorney General and will be staffed by representatives from the FBI, the CIA, the DHS, the Departments of State, Defense and Justice, and other agencies. The task force will be responsible for developing government-wide polices for detecting, deterring and mitigating insider threats.

Under Obama's order, the Secretary of Defense and the Director of the NSA are joint Executive Agents charged with developing technical policies and standards for protecting classified data. The pair is also responsible for conducting independent assessments of agency compliance with established security policies and standards.

"This order directs structural reforms to ensure responsible sharing and safeguarding of classified information on computer networks that shall be consistent with appropriate protections for privacy and civil liberties," the order noted.

Eddie Schwartz, the chief security officer at RSA, EMC's security division, said today's directive is aimed at fostering uniform government-wide standards governing data classification and the manner in which agencies handle, access and share classified data.

After the WikiLeaks incident, many agencies scrambled to implement measures to better protect classified data and networks, Schwartz said. Those efforts resulted in different standards and differing levels of diligence being put in place to protect classified data, he said.

"What the Administration is saying here is this is a matter for all of us," he said.

John Pescatore, an analyst at Gartner, argued that the order says little about what government agencies need to be doing to support secure collaboration in today's increasingly mobile environment.

The new mandate creates a few more committees and drives more reporting from the agencies, he said. "It's a pretty typical government response that never solves a security problem," Pescatore said.

The order is largely a reaction to the WikiLeaks incident; it should have been more forward looking, Pescatore said.

"What they should be doing is saying 'what do we need to do to support secure collaboration in the today's mobile IT environment?,'" he said. "They can't just block USB drives when people actually need them. That just drives people to start using DropBox, which is even less secure."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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