Panel: DOD software is at risk

Military should consider financial-industry model of documentation and code checks

On the heels of a Defense Science Board report on the risks related to software produced in foreign countries, lawmakers are considering restrictions on the amount of software development the Defense Department can send to international developers.The fiscal 2009 Defense Authorization bill directs the Defense Science Board to study DOD policies and procedures for maximizing the use of commercial information technology. Many policy experts expect that President Bush will sign the bill in the next few weeks.The provisions follow a September report from the board, which studied the globalization of software development and warned of the risks of potential U.S. adversaries writing code that DOD would need to fight in war. The report, “Mission Impact of Foreign Influence on DOD Software,” states that the military increasingly relies on software developed in India, China and Russia.The board concluded that offshoring presents an opportunity to attack systems, middleware and applications by inserting malware, back doors and other intentional flaws that others can later exploit. The risks that the board identified are even more acute in an era of network-centric operations, said J.R. Reagan, managing director of compliance and security at BearingPoint.“Whenever systems interconnect, there is increased risk,” Reagan said. The board report found that almost all of DOD’s custom software is developed in the United States by employees holding security clearances. Any potential restrictions on offshoring will apply to two other categories of software. Offshore development of commercial and government-specific software can significantly reduce costs, board members said. The report recommends that DOD apply risk-management principles to security measures for software development.“You have to make sure that mission-critical software is the most reliable,” said John Pescatore, an analyst at Gartner. “But you can’t pretend that every piece of software will go through the highest level of review. When you apply the same mission-critical requirements to everything, you end up with $5,000 coffee pots.”Risk management principles would dictate that general-purpose military software could be developed offshore as long as the supplier undergoes an audit and is trusted, Pescatore said. “At a minimum, this would include the right of the government to inspect the source code of the application in order to search for vulnerabilities and hidden functions,” he said. “It would also require that code be developed in secure facilities as mandated by the U.S. banking industry.”The U.S. financial industry has developed a program for assessing offshore software developers. The shared-assessment program developed by BITS, a nonprofit financial industry consortium, has promulgated procedures that include examination of vendor documentation, onsite assessments and random sampling of code.Some agencies also are choosing to develop even nonmission-critical software domestically. BearingPoint has developed software at a Hattiesburg, Miss., facility, which opened in 2006.Those projects required the code writers to undergo U.S. citizenship and background checks. Although the projects are not mission-critical, they might involve sensitive data, said Bert Naquin, the facility’s director.

A call for risk management

Defense Department leaders should work with other federal agencies to develop a plan to reduce the risk of software vulnerabilities for all of government. That is one of eight recommendations from the Defense Science Board in its report on the potential risks of software developed in foreign countries.

The board said the department should focus specifically on
supply-chain risks because globalization of companies and software development has increased the likelihood of security vulnerabilities.

The report also states that DOD and the Homeland Security Department should take the lead in implementing the recommendations in a recent analysis of life cycle risk mitigation by the federal National Security Systems’ Global Information Technology Working Group.

— Jason Miller

Buxbaum is a freelance writer in Bethesda, Md.