From FITARA to FISMA Reform: 5 Key Tech Bills Passed by Congress in 2014

Orhan Cam/Shutterstock.com

When it comes to a few key pieces of technology and cybersecurity legislation, the 113th Congress was surprisingly fruitful.

Congress this year was frequently blasted for its “do-nothing” reputation. But when it comes to a few key pieces of technology and cybersecurity legislation, the 113th Congress was surprisingly fruitful.

Below, read details of the significant legislative efforts approved by lawmakers this year, ranging from reforming information technology acquisition to strengthening the Department of Homeland Security’s role in securing federal networks from cyberattacks.

1. An Overhaul of Federal IT Procurement

More than a year after the glitch-prone launch of HealthCare.gov shone a harsh spotlight on large-scale federal IT projects, Congress finally got serious about reforming the way agencies purchase and build IT systems in the federal government.

The Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act -- or FITARA -- gives a major boost to agency chief information officers when it comes to overseeing their agencies’ IT budgets.

The legislation promises CIOs a “significant role” in programming, budgeting and decision-making related to IT at their agencies. That includes approving the IT portion of the annual budget requests agencies submit to Congress. It would also bar agencies from signing any contracts for IT or IT services unless the agency CIO has signed off on the deals. The bill similarly bars agencies from reprogramming IT funds without CIO approval.

Other reforms include codifying the Obama administration’s PortfolioStat process for identifying and correcting potentially troubled IT projects. The bill also formalizes goals for closing and consolidating costly federal data centers

Lawmakers included FITARA in an annual must-pass defense policy bill approved by Congress earlier this month.

2.  Lawmakers Finally Tackle FISMA Reform

Lawmakers also surprised federal IT watchers with a late-in-the-session blitz of cybersecurity bills. Chief among them -- a major update to the 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act that requires agencies to continuously monitor their networks in real-time for cyber vulnerabilities.

FISMA first required agencies to certify the security of their online systems, but it did so using decidedly 20th-century methods: annual checklists collected in binders and gathering dust on an inspector general’s shelf.

The FISMA modernization mandates “automated security tools to continuously diagnose and improve security” and calls on DHS to oversee governmentwide cybersecurity operations.  

Even before Congress approved the update, agencies had finally begun to take more concrete steps toward continuous monitoring, thanks to the Department of Homeland Security’s continuous diagnostics and mitigation program, or CDM. Under the $6 billion, DHS-managed CDM contract, agencies can opt in to various free cyber-monitoring tools and services to continuously scan their systems and note anomalies.

3. Congress Also Boosts Cyber Workforce

FISMA reform wasn’t the only piece of cyber legislation Congress took action on.

Lawmakers also voted to expand DHS’ National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center -- or NCCIC, pronounced “N-Kick” -- the agency’s  24/7 cyberthreat watch center.

NCCIC currently ingests streams of threat data -- incident reports filed by breached companies, tips from the FBI, intelligence chatter -- and shares it with federal agencies. The expansion of the center under the National Cybersecurity Protection Act allows it to distribute more threat information to the private sector.

DHS’ cyber workforce is also slated for a boost under legislation signed into law this month.

A measure, tucked away in a bill reforming the pay structure for border patrol agents, aims to help DHS recruit and retain cyber workers. The bill gives DHS officials greater flexibility to hire and compensate members of its cyber workforce; those perks are akin to those offered to the Defense Department’s cyberwarriors.

Finally, the Cybersecurity Workforce Assessment Act requires DHS to review its cyber workforce with an eye toward making sure critical cyber positions within the department remain filled.

4. Annual Spending Bill Funds Several Key Tech Priorities

While negotiations over funding the government went down to the wire and the possibility of a government shutdown loomed until the last minute, the fiscal 2015 spending bill (part omnibus funding measure and part continuing resolution) actually turned out to be good news, in a lot of ways, for several key tech priorities across government.

The spending bill clears the way for a new cybersecurity center in the Washington, D.C., area -- the civilian answer to the U.S. Cyber Command’s Fort Meade headquarters in Maryland.

The goal of the governmentwide civilian cyber campus, according to a March 2014 General Services Administration prospectus is to “create a centralized, visible, civilian-led organization that presents a fused cyber capability,” promotes collaboration between agencies and optimizes the use of federal resources, The civilian cyber mission spans agencies, including several components, including DHS, the Secret Service and the FBI.

The bill provides $35 million in construction or acquisition costs for the new campus -- the full amount requested by GSA.

The Obama administration’s IT reform initiatives would also get a funding boost. The spending bill provides $20 million for IT oversight initiatives at the Office of Management and Budget. That includes fully funding the U.S. Digital Service, the federal fix-it squad that launched in August.

Headed by former Googler Mikey Dickerson, the office has run in pilot mode over the last few months. The bump in funding should allow the office to reach a full staffing capacity of about 20-25 employees. 

In addition, the bill calls on OMB to identify the 10 “highest-priority” IT investments under development across the government and provide quarterly reports to the congressional oversight committees on those projects.  

5. Annual Defense Bill Seeks to Curtail Cyber Espionage

The Defense Authorization Act, the annual must-pass Pentagon policy bill, included several measures to secure the supply chain from potential cyber threats.

A key provision included in the final version of the defense bill would require the Pentagon and the director of national intelligence to inform lawmakers each time they consider proposals from or award contracts to companies whose computer systems contain parts made by a company ”suspected of being influenced by a foreign country.”

The measure was watered down since it first appeared in the House’s version of the Defense bill. That version would have required DOD to also flag corporate networks “in proximity to Department of Defense or intelligence community facilities” that might be influenced by another country -- such as a sandwich shop near a military base that uses routers made by Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant accused of cyber espionage.

Also making it into the final version are some new rules for reporting cyber breaches for a few key contractors.

The Senate version of the bill -- later adopted in the compromise version -- contained a provision directing Pentagon officials to identify “operationally critical” contractors that would be required to report to DOD successful penetrations of their computer networks “by known or suspected advanced persistent threat actors.”

The legislation also calls on the Obama administration to report annually to Congress on countries that engage in cyber espionage, the types of technologies and intellectual property they’re after and the U.S. response.

(Image via Orhan Cam/Shutterstock.com)

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