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OPINION: The Highs (and Lows) of the CSO

OPINION: The Highs (and Lows) of the CSO

The fat lady never sings for government employees. The federal wind blows in many directions and the political climate can change quickly; the decisions that government CSOs make today will be measured, in hindsight, using a moral barometer that is calibrated to tomorrow’s regulatory environment.

Pity the public-sector CSO. He has to overcome all the typical security pitfalls - and he gets to do it all in a bureaucratic fishbowl.

It's not an easy trek, becoming a security manager. But of all the possible security executive jobs out there, none is probably as challenging as the public-sector job. The government CSO most likely has climbed his career mountain without a Sherpa or a harness to catch him if he falls.

For starters, cultural and situational issues unique to government jobs make for a particularly tough journey for the government CSO. In the US Office of Management and Budget's 2001 Government Information Security Reform Act report to Congress, for example, six IT security weaknesses in government were identified. They included a lack of attention to IT security by senior management and nonexistent IT security performance measures. In addition, the report cited poor security education and awareness, a lack of fully funded and integrated security, a failure to ensure that contractor services are adequately secure, and a problem with detecting, reporting and sharing information on vulnerabilities.

Although those weaknesses exist outside the public sector, they are exacerbated in government agencies where procedural problems and incompetent management can inflate them. Here are the facts:

Government security officers have less control than their civilian counterparts. While industry executives are constrained by their budgets, government employees have to buy goods and services from a government-approved list, and they are bureaucratically hampered in their hiring. They are also critically dependent on outsourced labour and do not have insight - beyond routine security clearances - into their contractors' backgrounds.

All federal executives live in a fishbowl. In the private sector, CSOs answer solely to the executive team. Public-sector CSOs have lists of executives they report to. These CSOs are also subject to investigations by regulatory agencies.

The fat lady never sings for government employees. The actions of the government CSO can become public information years later, even if he's no longer a government employee. The federal wind blows in many directions and the political climate can change quickly; the decisions that government CSOs make today will be measured, in hindsight, using a moral barometer that is calibrated to tomorrow's regulatory environment.

Government computers will always be prime targets. In theory, security should be taken seriously everywhere, but in practice, some places are more likely to attract problems than others. Government data centres are prime targets. If the motive is terrorism or information warfare, the hackers involved will be highly motivated professionals with an agenda, not disgruntled employees or bored teenagers.

Defending a prime target is very different from installing perimeter protection. The defensive stance employed by CSOs is based on the same principle that is followed by virus checkers - block things that have been seen before. But the hot spots (such as government networks) will experience the destructive and innovative tactics of experienced hackers. It's much harder to defend against innovative attacks that you haven't encountered before than those that you have learned to block.

Conflicting messages are difficult to decipher. An unenlightened management group armed with high expectations is a difficult group to work with. I once recommended a new client/server system to a senior government customer and was told that servers cost too much; they just wanted clients. I'm reminded of that story when I read about proposed e-government initiatives that lack a commensurate budgetary increase for agency security.

The fact is, government information security is in lousy shape. Outsourcing and privatisation are not likely to improve the situation and might actually make it worse. True security, however, is patient professionalism fuelled by adequate funding.

David Holtzman, former CTO of Network Solutions, also worked as a cryptographic analyst with the US Navy and an intelligence analyst at DEFSMAC

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