Air Force’s New Fast-Track Process Can Grant Cybersecurity Authorizations In One Week

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The process is a mix of quick but comprehensive testing up front followed by continuous monitoring through the life of the app.

The Air Force is taking one of the longest, most difficult, critical aspects of cybersecurity and IT deployment in the public sector and fast-tracking the process.

Last week, Air Force Undersecretary Matthew Donovan signed a memo authorizing officials to grant IT systems an authority to operate—the designation certifying the application is reasonably secure from cyberattacks—on an expedited timetable.

Obtaining an ATO is often an arduous process that can take months, especially for military systems that are constant targets for bad actors worldwide. During pilot tests earlier this year, officials at the Air Operations Center used the Fast-Track ATO process to certify a system in just one week, according to Frank Konieczny, the Air Force’s chief technology officer.

Prior to developing the fast-track process, the Air Force relied on the Risk Management Framework, a schema developed by the National Institute for Standards and Technology to establish a baseline cybersecurity posture. However, that largely led to check-the-box compliance rather than real security, Konieczny said during a panel Tuesday at the RSA Federal Summit.

“People always complained RMF was too long, too onerous and didn’t provide anything except a lot of paperwork,” he said. “So, now we’re trying to get back to the operational side, let’s look at it from an operational viewpoint: What do we really need to do to actually support it going forward and doing it faster than just paperwork?”

Rather than go through each security control individually, the fast-track process allows project owners to run a penetration test—in which cybersecurity experts attempt to break the system—to establish a security baseline, then incorporate continuous monitoring of those systems into the future to ensure it remains secure.

“It comes down to the premise that RMF is a compliance issue. It doesn’t mean you’re secure, it means you’re compliant,” Konieczny said. “We’re saying, basically, if you want to do a fast ATO, you need to think about looking at some of the controls that you’re going to monitor, doing a pen test and doing continuous monitoring after that. … The pen test will actually answer some of those controls [questions] right away. And it’s a better case because it’s not just compliance anymore, it’s how you operationally put the information out there.”

The Air Force has contracted with multiple third parties to conduct the pen tests, Konieczny said.

While those third parties are conducting the tests, the new process puts the onus on Air Force authorizing officials to make good decisions, according to a March 18 memo sent to those officials from Air Force Deputy Chief Information Officer Bill Marion.

“A fundamental tenet of this Fast-Track ATO process is the authorizing official will make operationally informed risk management decisions,” he wrote. “Authorizing officials are expected to make these decisions by working closely with information systems owners and warfighters to find the appropriate balance between rapid deployment and appropriate level of risk assessment.”

Shortening the timeline for ATOs is critical for the Air Force, as “delays in fielding new systems can bring their own risks by extending the use of legacy—often less secure—capabilities,” Marion’s memo points out.

But the fast-track process doesn’t work for all systems and apps.

“It’s a very structured environment,” Konieczny said, which enables the Air Force to test for specific controls in a known environment as the applications are being developed. “It’s a complete security DevOps system where they do lots of testing automatically. They’re filling out most of the controls automatically. Then, they put it into operational [platforms], do a pen test; if the pen test passes, it’s ready to go.”

This framework won’t be appropriate for larger programs, such as weapons systems, he said.

Marion noted this in his memo, as well: “Systems that have not ‘baked security in’ to the system design and are not prepared to endure a strong penetration test, are not good candidates for Fast-Track.”

When the fast-track program isn’t a fit, Air Force officials can still use one of two other authorization methods: RMF Now, which combines the Risk Management Framework with the Operational Risk Tolerance Baseline, which Marion describes as a phased approach to risk management; and Ongoing Authorization or Continuous ATO, used by agile development teams to maintain security at each stage of the process.