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OMB’s Zero Trust strategy: Government gets good

What a time to be alive! Hot on the heels of Forrester’s release of our definition of modern Zero Trust (ZT), the US Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a memo entitled Moving the US Government Toward Zero Trust Cybersecurity Principles

Coincidence? Yes. A big deal? Also, yes. 

If executed as mandated, not only will government agencies meet the security maturity levels of large organizations in the private sector (they did just start hiring at that level, remember), they’ll also surpass them. This major transformative effort sets a new bar for all sectors and is a cause for celebration. It also breaks down barriers to Zero Trust adoption by providing security leaders across industries a set of priorities in line with each of the five Zero Trust pillars, which they can seek executive buy-in — made all the easier by a high-profile government mandate — and build into their budgets and timelines. 

Celebrate this strategy 

Zero Trust advocates should be jumping for joy over the federal government’s understanding of modern Zero Trust and how it is operationalized. Forrester designated seven operational domains of Zero Trust: five for security controls and two for interaction across the domains when we created Zero Trust eXtended (ZTX). The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the OMB recognize these seven and add one more: governance. 

So, for the past decade, where there was previously much confusion around how to define or operationalize Zero Trust, today there is an outpouring of aligned definitions, thanks to the White House Executive Order released in early 2021. Importantly, CISA’s view takes cues from Forrester’s original shaping of Zero Trust when we first defined it over 12 years ago. Our guns are pointing in the same direction. 

Second, the OMB strategy document has depth and breadth. In all these domains, OMB doesn’t just make the right call, it makes the bold call and doubles down on Zero Trust. Examples abound!

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Forrester

There are a handful of half measures, which is fewer than we were expecting for government IT composed largely of islands of varying technological maturity. This includes encrypted email and some leeway on how people do ZT in the network (which is understandable, because the network is still the hardest part). 

Why This Matters 

Many organizations lack a cogent cybersecurity strategy; at least now US federal agencies aren’t among them. And while better cybersecurity is a worthy goal, don’t forget that sabers rattle in both a middle kingdom and the remains of a superpower, neither of which have qualms about cyber warfare. 

For many initiatives, the devil is in the details. That’s not true for the OMB Zero Trust strategy; as we mentioned above, it’s really good. Here, the devil will be in the execution. To what extent will every agency, contractors, and all their subcontractors operationalize Zero Trust? 

The short 

Among the timelines included in the OMB strategy are several short-term tasks, such as providing CISA and the General Services Administration any non-.gov hostnames (a mere 60 days) and the welcoming of external vulnerability reports for internet-accessible systems. Within one year, enforced password rotation should be kicked into the gutter, where it belongs. 

Crucially, within 60 days, agencies must submit to OMB and CISA an implementation plan for FY22–FY24 for OMB concurrence and a budget estimate for FY23–FY24. 

As budget estimates align with roadmaps, many a CISO will need help revising these quickly. The recent cybersecurity hiring improvements may help draw patriots from the private sector for some agencies, but others will have to draw on third parties for strategy consulting. Having worked with many Forrester clients (federal, state, and city government agencies), we know that agencies: 

  • Have different levels of technological and cybersecurity maturity. 

  • Will undergo Zero Trust maturity assessments and gap analyses based off the recently published CISA Zero Trust maturity model. 

Getting to the long term 

The OMB Zero Trust strategy mandates many significant (and challenging) security improvements for each federal agency over the long term. Two themes within the OMB strategy provide help for the government CISO: cloud and collaboration. 

Regarding collaboration, paraphrasing section two, “[teams] within and across agencies should collaborate to jointly develop pilot initiatives and governmentwide guidance on categorizing data based on protection needs, ultimately building a foundation to automate security access rules.” And it’s not just teams. The memorandum has sage words for the execs: “Agency chief financial officers, chief acquisition officers, senior agency officials for privacy, and others in agency leadership should work in partnership with their IT and security leadership to deploy and sustain Zero Trust capabilities. It is critical that agency leadership and the entire C-suite be aligned and committed to overhauling an agency’s security architecture and operations.” 

The OMB strategy also mentions “cloud” an eye-popping 44 times in its 29 pages. “Agencies should make use of the rich security features present in cloud infrastructure,” states the memorandum’s opening. Many of the mandates, to be sure, are more easily accomplished with cloud-based architectures (think: enterprise-wide management of anything). The OMB strategy has guidance around cloud for all five of the main Zero Trust pillars: identity, devices, networks, workloads, and data. 

Mark this day 

We have ordered additional rations of ibuprofen for the current and former Forrester analysts aligned to Zero Trust, as several have sprained themselves with virtual high fives and physical pats on their own backs in celebration of this memorandum. Hyperbole aside, let us observe and celebrate the monumental progress that the US federal government has achieved toward Zero Trust: in 2020, the NIST Zero Trust architecture (SP 800-207); in 2021, the Biden Executive Order on Zero Trust and the CISA Zero Trust maturity model; and now, in 2022, the most specific and ambitious document yet, the OMB Zero Trust strategy

This post was written by Senior Research Analyst David Holmes and it originally appeared here


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