Federal Group Formed To Boost Poor Security

Agencies and departments receive a D+ grade average for IT security

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

February 18, 2005

4 Min Read

The consistent failure of many federal agencies to secure their IT systems has prompted government officials to create a new organization, which will be funded by the private sector, to help chief information security officers improve cybersecurity.

The formation of the CISO Exchange was disclosed last week by the federal CIO Council and the chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, Tom Davis, R-Va., who also released a computer-security scorecard for two dozen federal departments and agencies. It wasn't a report card to be proud of: The average grade for 2004 was a D+, and seven departments received a grade of F. Only seven departments got grades of B or higher. The best performers were the U.S. Agency for International Development, with an A+, and the Transportation Department, with an A-.

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Unlike the CIO Council, the CISO Exchange will be an informal organization aimed at providing more than 100 departmental and agency chief information security officers with a way to collaborate. "It's not sufficient to keep admonishing these guys," says Stephen O'Keefe, the head IT public relations, research, and events firm O'Keefe & Cc., who will serve as the group's executive director. "We have to provide a forum where they can have a seat at the table, learn from others, and get feedback on ideas."

The exchange will be co-chaired by Justice Department CIO Van Hitch, who heads the CIO Council's cybersecurity and privacy committee, and Government Reform Committee staff director Melissa Wojciak.

The exchange is patterned after other government efforts to cross-pollinate ideas and best practices between the private sector and government in order "to move our government to the top of the class in IT security," Reform Committee chairman Davis said in a statement. The CISO Exchange will hold quarterly education meetings and produce a report on federal IT security priorities and operations.

All money to support the CISO Exchange will come from business, mostly IT security companies. As of last week's announcement, no company had been asked to contribute money.

Drew Crockett, the House panel's deputy communications director, doesn't see a problem with business funding a government group. Government procurement laws and regulations require multiple bidders, so companies financing the exchange won't have undue influence on chief information security officers, he says. "Statutes are in place to prohibit cronyism," Crockett says.

Creating a government-funded group would take time; a business-backed exchange can become operational much sooner, O'Keefe and Crockett say.

Federal chief information security officers indicate they need better guidance to comply with the 2002 law that requires agencies to secure their IT systems and networks. In a survey of 30 federal CISOs conducted by IT-security-management vendor Telos Corp., 70% say they want clarification of guidelines and 53% recommend that improved guidance be provided on the annual security-control tests that agencies' inspectors general conduct.

Most security officers surveyed say there's no correlation between the scorecard grades they received and government funding of IT-security initiatives. That could be part of the problem. "If there are no incentives for agencies to continue to comply with [Federal Information Security Management Act] requirements," Telos chief security officer Richard Tracy says, "what's the point?"

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