FITARA Scores Are the Push Agencies Need to Improve Basic Federal Cyber Hygiene

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Here are some ideas where government IT leaders can improve cybersecurity at their agency.

Unsurprisingly, the key topic of discussion around the FITARA 12.0 Scorecard was cybersecurity. Few agencies are doing it well, many don’t have the strongest cyber posture, and improvement is needed throughout the federal government.

Agencies are under a sharper political and regulatory microscope and are being pushed to engineer better defenses. During the FITARA hearing on July 28, while the agency’s overall scores were positive, cybersecurity grades were harsh: only two agencies scored A grades, five received B grades, eight earned C grades, seven received D grades, and one agency earned a failing grade.

And, a recent bipartisan Senate report found that two years after a 2019 report on federal agency cybersecurity, there are still systemic failures at several agencies when it comes to safeguarding data.

The Senate report, “Federal Cybersecurity: America’s Data Still at Risk, concluded that these agencies failed to protect personally identifiable information, maintain accurate and comprehensive IT asset inventories, maintain current authorizations to operate for information systems, install security patches quickly, and retire legacy technology no longer supported by the vendor.

Legislation such as the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill (approved by the Senate and currently with the House) and the recent cybersecurity executive order provides guidance and funding to help agencies make changes and better secure critical infrastructure against cyberattacks. Both underscore the importance of greater collaboration between the public and private sectors to create resiliency, as well as to  better understand and manage cyber risk.

Where to Begin Modernization Efforts

At the FITARA hearing, federal CIO Clare Martorana emphasized that modernizing federal IT is not an easy feat for CIOs—managing agency technology portfolios at different levels of funding and maturity, working to retire legacy IT while trying to launch modern platforms, and most importantly, identifying vulnerabilities and ensuring the cybersecurity of their networks. She added that the increasing number of sophisticated cyberattacks in recent months highlights our need to rethink our collective approach to cybersecurity.

Cybersecurity improvement starts with IT modernization. But first we must make informed decisions with real-time data—with support from federal and taxpayer dollars and legislation to focus on modernization efforts.

We know some legacy systems created challenges with the continuity of government operations when the pandemic hit. If an agency does not have comprehensive visibility into assets and real-time data about the health and performance of those assets, it is not able to adapt quickly enough to events like the pandemic or the rapid shift to telework. Agencies must be able to gather real-time, actionable data on the state of an endpoint to prioritize modernization efforts.

Where do government IT leaders go from here as they seek to improve cybersecurity at their agency? Here are some ideas:

  • Start with the fundamentals: the agency’s cyber hygiene level. Good cyber hygiene, which starts at the endpoint, can have both an immediate and long-term positive impact on our nation’s cybersecurity health.
  • Adopt a zero-trust security platform that bridges the gap between security and operations teams within government’s most complex environments, and provides a unified view of endpoints across the enterprise. This gives federal teams better visibility across end-user tools, cloud infrastructure, and the data center.
  • Conduct risk prioritization and remediation of the agency’s cyber posture—identifying and addressing vulnerabilities that pose the highest threat and could have the biggest negative impact on the mission. This can dramatically improve an agency’s basic cyber hygiene, as research shows agencies have more cyber tools than they actually need.
  • Use the federal cyber funding to modernize legacy systems, strengthen cyber defenses and foster a well-equipped cyber workforce.

By incorporating these recommended strategies into an agency’s IT modernization efforts, IT teams can strengthen basic cyber hygiene—and boost subsequent FITARA cyber scores. These approaches allow them to track unfiltered endpoint behavior in real-time to see changes to configurations, identify vulnerabilities, visualize lateral movement and adapt to provide data at the time of need. Minimizing the overhead and friction between teams working together to secure the organization also reduces the number of interfaces used for security functions to additionally cut complexity, cost and risk.

As flexible work models continue to be the new normal throughout the private and public sector, and threat tactics continue to advance, strengthening cyber defenses has never been more important. But, with the support of new and pending federal legislation and grading systems, agencies can overcome challenges and increase cyber resiliency.

Matt Marsden is vice president of Technical Account Management, Federal at Tanium.

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