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Feds Tout Open Source's Role In Security

Government seeks open-source approach to programming to make software engineers accountable for their programs' security.

In a nation that's become almost completely dependent upon interconnected information networks and data shuttled through cyberspace, the federal government is grappling with the best approach to securing its own IT systems while creating a national cybersecurity strategy for businesses. At Tuesday's Open Source Security Summit in Washington, representatives from government, academia, and industry presented their case that open-source code's flexibility and transparency will play a key role in securing the nation's IT systems and data.

"IT security has become a matter of national security," says Marcus Sachs, director for Communication Infrastructure Protection for the White House Office of Cyber Security. "All we're asking for is that software vendors have security built into their products." This includes accountable IP addressing, trusted network services for routing and naming, authenticated user services for applications such as E-mail, and a working public key infrastructure, he says.

While Sachs doesn't discourage the use of packaged software where the source code is not available to the buyer, he does promote an open-source approach to programming as a way to make software engineers accountable for the security of their programs. Placed in context, if a bridge collapses, an investigation is launched, the bridge's engineering process is examined, and changes are made to future construction. "IT needs to be this way," he says.

The federal government is looking to lead by example and hopes eventually to require that all software purchased by its agencies be certified by its National Information Assurance Partnership. NIAP is a collaboration between the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Security Agency created, in part, to certify the security of software before it's implemented by government agencies. Although NIAP was established several years ago, the government plans to complete a performance review of the program by the end of 2003 to determine its effectiveness in regulating the quality of IT products used by government, academia, and industry.

"We have no clue where the Internet will be in 10 years or 100 years," Sachs says, adding that the primary objective in IT must be to create a foundation for the Internet that can last for many generations because it's built on secure applications.

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