Federal IT leaders tasked with safeguarding the integrity of government systems operate in an environment that demands unwavering vigilance and adaptability. There’s no room for perilously sluggish manual processes that don’t provide real-time visibility and rely on someone’s ability to make the right decision. CIOs must pursue automation and implement a system of continuous security assessment to foster innovation while maintaining resilience.

Untenable reality

Government agencies handle vast amounts of data, spanning multiple systems, an intricate network of configurations, access control mechanisms and storage protocols. When a breach happens, manually sifting through this complex web to identify relevant logs and evidence prolongs the incident response timeline and exacerbates exposure.

Investigators must wait for data to be collected and analyzed before they can gain a comprehensive understanding of the situation and make informed decisions. Manual assessments often involve multiple individuals or teams working in isolation, leading to fragmented understanding. Each new finding necessitates rework. The subjective nature of human analysis can result in inconsistent interpretations and varying conclusions.

Without a clear understanding of the relative importance of vulnerabilities and the potential impact of each exploit, it is impossible to allocate resources judiciously and address the most critical threats first. Such approach is simply untenable; Security assessments need to be automated.

Authorizations first

The development of OSCAL has set the foundation for assessment automation, making it possible for FedRAMP to accept digitized authorization packages. In the 13 years since its inception, FedRAMP has given federal agencies the confidence to embrace commercial solutions. Its success in catalyzing digital transformation by reducing the risk and uncertainty surrounding cloud technologies is undeniable. However, varying formats of assessment and authorization documents lead to inconsistencies in interpretation.

Multiple regulatory frameworks and standards change over time, causing delays in the authorization process that demands a substantial resource investment and can take up to two years, frustrating security teams. Recognizing the need to modernize, FedRAMP has embarked on an automation journey toward rapid authorization and cross-agency reciprocity. As part of that effort, the program now accepts submissions in digital format.

Cloud service providers can generate and submit machine-readable artifacts for their System Security Plan (SSP), mapping security controls to FedRAMP requirements, eliminating guesswork and ensuring alignment with the latest standards. They can also conduct integrated validation checks prior to submission to identify potential inconsistencies or gaps. Industry-wide digitization of security documentation and task automation through OSCAL would supercharge the authorization process across the government.

Continuous compliance

Maintaining security standards and requirements for authorized technologies poses a persistent challenge for federal agencies relying on these solutions due to the inability to reuse existing accreditations and the extensive amount of paperwork, manual data entry and repetitive tasks.

Traditional security assessments–conducted annually, monthly or on demand–are rendered obsolete almost immediately in the dynamic hyper-cloud environment. With constant provisioning and de-provisioning of resources, the inventory you scan today becomes irrelevant within minutes. While frequent and arduous, today’s security scans are not continuous and leave significant gaps in coverage.

Following FedRAMP’s lead, federal IT leaders should harness the power of OSCAL to digitize security documentation, automate assessments and establish a posture of continuous compliance for their agency’s IT infrastructures.

Avoiding roadblocks

Security assessment automation and continuous compliance are the destination. Yet, even the most meticulously conceived journey cannot commence without adequate preparation. In this case, converting legacy SSP data to OSCAL to automate the assembly of compliance documentation is the essential starting point. The promise of automation’s transformative power can tempt some to overlook this mundane prerequisite due to its perceived lack of immediate impact. Neglecting this task, however, will eventually create a roadblock.

Automating document generation elevates the quality, freeing up resources for higher-value tasks. Standardized and consistent authorization content facilitates interoperability across diverse regulatory frameworks and reusability of existing accreditations. Once the security inventory is in a machine-readable format, it can be injected into the continuous delivery and continuous integration workflow so assessment tools can access it.

Ongoing scans allow for earlier identification of security issues, while a digitalized repository of compliance information enables security teams to query data and pinpoint affected systems rapidly so they can prioritize remediation efforts and minimize damage.

It’s go time

Every breach is a crisis, but not every crisis unfolds the same way. The ability to respond swiftly and effectively can mean the difference between a manageable challenge and a catastrophic incident.

Federal CIOs can reduce risk exposure and achieve a security posture of continuous compliance with the adoption of OSCAL. It provides a standardized framework for documenting security controls and compliance information, reducing the reliance on paper-based records and enhancing accessibility. It enables real-time evaluation to ensure IT systems remain compliant throughout their lifecycle, eliminating the need for periodic or ad-hoc authorization reviews, reducing manual effort and minimizing the risk of human error.

Given the government’s focus on zero trust, modernization and efficiency, a mandate requiring the automation of security assessments is on the horizon. Federal CIOs who wait for it to arrive risk falling behind, merely catching up instead of forging the path ahead.

Valinder Mangat is Chief Innovation Officer at DRTConfidence, provider of an OSCAL-ready platform that automates compliance management across security frameworks.

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