Contractors ask GSA to Freeze Cyber-Related Regulations

A White House executive order could conflict with pending federal acquisition rules.

Federal suppliers are urging officials to stop computer security rulemakings for contractors until the government issues blanket cyber guidelines for all key industries in the fall. The argument is not that contractor-specific regulations are bad but that they could potentially conflict with the forthcoming national standards.

President Obama, as part of a February executive order, initiated a voluntary program for safeguarding life-sustaining networks, including energy, health care and water treatment systems. By November, the government must publish a draft set of standard policies and techniques, such as promptly installing antispyware updates. The government also must decide if and how these standards should be incorporated into federal contracts.

But -- independently -- multiple computer security mandates for contractors already are at various stages of development. 

The separate cyber rules for government vendors are “all well intentioned. For the longest time, nobody was paying attention to cybersecurity. Now, everybody is paying attention to cybersecurity,” said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president for the Professional Services Council, a trade association that represents contractors.

However, he said, association leaders have told contracting officers that the pending regulations might be at odds with the executive order.

The General Services Administration, the government's purchasing division, must report to the White House by June on recommendations for weaving the security standards into federal acquisitions.

This week, the agency invited vendors to help untangle and align existing cyber-related procurement requirements.

According to a notice issued on Monday, GSA wants to hear about economic hardships standards could create for contractors, as well as incentives that would not strain government coffers.

The bulletin specifically requests "information about any conflicts in statutes, regulations, policies, practices, contractual terms and conditions, or acquisition processes affecting federal acquisition requirements related to cybersecurity and how the federal government might address those conflicts."

In an April 8 letter, Professional Services Council leaders told National Institute of Standards and Technology officials, who are developing the baseline standards, "It should be the NIST framework that serves as the foundation for other government cybersecurity initiatives. Therefore, it is logical to suspend non-final [federal acquisition rulemakings] until the initial framework has been established."

Chvotkin, during an interview this week, said there is a need to first identify the types of devices covered under cyber-related policies in general, and what techniques have proven to work best across the board.

"Once you establish that framework, that architecture, then contract clauses can flow from that. Right now we lack a governmentwide policy," he said.

One example of a potentially incompatible policy is a draft 2012 plan requiring contractors to employ safeguards for company equipment that transmits government information, Chvotkin said. The proposal calls for only a few, vague computer protections and leaves vendors substantial flexibility, some security researchers say.  Another evolving policy would impose unprecedented cyber certification requirements on private sector critical infrastructure essential to the military, such as power plants. The specifications are scheduled to be released this fall and take effect within a year, according to the Pentagon.

During a May 1 industry briefing, GSA officials outlined several proposed suggestions for applying cyber standards to federal contracts.  The items, which Nextgov reviewed, include devising a common lexicon that melds cyber lingo with acquisition jargon, as well as involving cyber specialists in operations and maintenance throughout a program’s lifecycle.

(Image via mtkang/Shutterstock.com)

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