As Australian breach notification looms, continuous authentication drives US government's data-security overhaul

Tighter security controls to help agencies secure public-sector data as if they were carrying private-sector risk

Australia's government may be finally close to passing long-mooted breach-notification laws but as companies scramble to prepare, new US government data-security guidelines – recently updated for the first time in over 15 years – offer both private and public-sector entities invaluable guidance to the type of data-management and authentication practices necessary to protect the sensitive data they collect and use every day.

US regulations around data protection, encapsulated in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-130 that was last updated in 2000, were overhauled and an extensively revised new version finally released to update the old guidelines.

The new A-130 document – released just months after the Australian government updated its own Cyber Security Strategy for the first time since 2009 – focuses on three key concepts to outline the protections necessary in today's changing threat climate.

These include real-time knowledge of the security environment; proactive risk management; and shared responsibility that “helps to ensure everyone remains responsible and accountable for assuring privacy and security of information,” the OMB explained in its introduction to the document. “In order to keep pace, we must move away from periodic, compliance-driven assessment exercises and, instead, continuously assess our systems and build-in security and privacy with every update and re-design. Throughout the Circular, we make clear the shift away from check-list exercises and toward the ongoing monitoring, assessment, and evaluation of Federal information resources.”

That philosophy has also driven an explicit commitment to continuous authentication technology that looks beyond conventional user ID-and-password protections to regularly challenge users for authentication credentials throughout their sessions. These challenges might be conducted as requests for additional passwords or SMS access codes, or in the background as automated handshaking between approved devices and an applications host.

US federal agencies are subject to “a more dynamic continuous monitoring and ongoing authorization process for information systems and common controls,” the OMB writes, noting the requirement for agencies to step up their protections in areas including incident response, encryption, inclusion of security requirements in contracts, oversight of contractors, protection against insider threats, protection against supply chain risks, prohibition of unsupported software and system components, and greater accountability for personnel.

This more proactive stance on cybersecurity reflects the Obama administration's progressive posture against cybersecurity threats, which has been echoed by the Australian government's admission that it is ready to take a more proactive stance against cybercriminals.

Yet similarly dramatic changes are afoot as breach notification legislation long mooted by the Attorney-General's Department and encapsulated in the Privacy Amendment (Notifiable Data Breaches) Bill crawls back into the limelight after two failed efforts to be heard in Parliament. There are now expectations that Parliament will debate the legislation before the year is finished, and with the rising tide of penetrations causing very real economic and political damage there seems little doubt that it will finally pass. Still, “we are very much behind the other developed economies that we would normally be on par with,” Jones Day partner Adam Salter recently told CSO Australia.

“But it's not as contentious as it used to be and the bill is in a relatively settled form, so the hope is that it will be in place this calendar year. People these days have a stronger expectation of privacy, and the law is finally catching up with that.” A growing requirement for Australian businesses and government agencies to report data breaches will increase the pressure on executives to ensure that appropriate security is built into core systems from the beginning.

This reflects the goals of the updated Circular A-130 which, the OMB describes, requires information systems to be built “to anticipate the modern threat space – that is, the systems should employ technologies that can significantly increase the 'built-in' protection capability of those systems and make them inherently less vulnerable.” Making this happen requires “building trustworthiness and resilience in all layers of the information technology 'stack',” the guidelines note, channeling the recommendations of many security practitioners that businesses appoint chief trust officers to boost their overall security posture.

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