Data theft continues to pose challenges for everyone as online criminals develop innovative mechanisms to commit fraud. A study by Javelin Strategy & Research revealed that personal data breaches resulted in $14.4 million losses in 2018, and identity theft leads to $100 million losses.
This is why organizations, particularly those working with the federal government, need to ensure that the systems in place that will prevent them from being subject to data leaks. Surveys indicate that breached government records accounted for roughly 57 percent of the total volume of data and identity theft.
Currently, encryption is among the most common yet effective data security methods used by organizations to make data theft a much more difficult task for hackers. Generally, encryption is defined as the process of translating data into another form or code to ensure that only individuals with a decryption key or password can read it.
The primary aim of data encryption is to safeguard digital information as it is stored on network and computer systems and transmitted over the cloud. These algorithms work together to ensure confidentiality and drive key security initiatives, which include non-repudiation, integrity, and authentication.
The steady pace of breaches has reinforced the need for encryption as a last line of defense against the innovative techniques of online criminals. Perhaps the most popular security concerning federal data is the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002 (FISMA), which requires agencies to establish, record and employ information protection and security programs.
Generally, FISMA was established to minimize the security risk to federal data systems and information while ensuring cost-efficient spending on data security. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is the organization responsible for coming up with the security guidelines necessary for FISMA implementation.
FISMA standards and guidelines cover the topics of information system inventory, security controls, categorization of risks, system security plan, risk assessments, certification or accreditation, and constant monitoring. An outlined of these critical security standards and guidelines are outlined below:
Information System Inventory
Each federal organization or contractors working with the government are required to keep an inventory of all the information systems used within the agency. The organization is also assigned to determine the connection between these data systems and other systems within their network.
All information systems and data should be classified based on the objectives of information security and according to the range of risk levels. The Standards for Security Categorization of Federal Information and Information Systems outlined in FIPS 199 defines a range of threat levels within which enterprises can place their information systems. Categorizing the risks is essential on the road to FISMA encryption as organizations will also determine the risks to accept or mitigate.
Security Controls. NIST SP 800-53 summarizes an all-encyclopedic catalog of suggested security controls for FISMA compliance. While FISMA does not require an organization to apply all controls, they are instructing business leaders to use controls that are relevant to their systems and operations.
The process of choosing the right security controls and assurance requirements for information systems is geared towards achieving sufficient security within the organization. As stated in SP 800-53, agencies also have the choice in applying baseline security controls to ensure that it can fit with their operational environments and mission requirements. The chosen restrictions should be recorded in the system security plan for documentation purposes.
Risk Assessment. Risk assessments are a vital factor in FISMA encryption. These assessments help validate and identify if any additional is needed to protect the assets, operations, and individuals within the organization. Usually, these assessments involve the identification of potential vulnerabilities and the mapping of implemented controls to individual threats.
An expert from RSI Security will subsequently assess the impact and likelihood that any given threat could be exploited. As per NIST guidelines, risk assessments are a three-tiered process that involves determining security threats at the business process, information system, and organizational levels.
System Security Plan. A policy on the system security planning process is one of the essential FISMA encryption requirements. The plan should cover crucial aspects like the security controls implemented in security policies or within the organization and a timetable for the introduction of additional restrictions.
Usually, the system security plan is assessed, updated, and accepted by the certification agent during the security certification and accreditation process. The certification agent is also responsible for ensuring that security controls defined in the system security plan are consistent with the FIIPS 100 security category. The initial risk determination is recorded in the system security plan and risk assessment or any equivalent document as well.
Certification and Accreditation. The security controls of the information are reviewed and certified to ensure proper function once the risk assessment and system documentation have been completed. Organizations can acquire Certification and Accreditation through a four-tiered process which involves initiation and planning, accreditation, certification, and constant tracking. The results of the certification are subsequently used to reevaluate the threats and update the system security plan. Through this process, organizations can provide a factual basis to a certification agent to render an accreditation of their information systems.
Information systems accredited by FISMA are required to be monitored to ensure that changes and modifications are reflected in the system documentation. Constant monitoring activities that are needed to be performed include the continuous evaluation of security controls, comprehensive status reporting, impact assessments of changes to the system, and configuration management.
The organization is also required to establish the selection criteria before selecting a subset of security controls applied within the data system for evaluation. They are also assigned to come up with the schedule for control tracking to guarantee that sufficient coverage is accomplished.
Assessment of compliance is reported yearly to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and each organization’s FISMA Report Card is available to the public. Moreover, each information system of FISMA is also defined based on its impacts. The criteria include the following:
- Low-impact systems. These information systems are built to survive online attacks and would only have less adverse effects on individuals or agencies.
- Moderate Impact Systems. These data systems cannot usually endure security breaches. Hacking these systems may lead to severe effects on the individuals, assets, and operations of the agency.
- High-Impact Systems. Breaches on these systems could lead to financial losses and property or physical damages to individuals.
Information systems accredited by FISMA with moderate or high-impact characteristics shall encrypt their information using FIPS 140-2-validated encryption modules. Technically, these encryption modules are the benchmark for verifying the efficiency of cryptographic hardware.
In most cases, organizations use the FIPS 140-2 standard to assure that the hardware they choose meets specific security requirements. The keys used to protect the information should be managed separately from the data and obtain higher privileges.
As part of FISMA encryption requirements, password keys should be changed regularly to ensure data security. FISMA also requires that the data be encrypted if any of the systems on the mobile device have an impact rating of moderate to prevent data loss or theft.
FISMA encryption standards are not only applicable to security protocols implementable using software or hardware but also to the physical security of the facilities used to store services and equipment. More often than not, physical security includes all measures whose goal is to prevent physical access to a resource, building, or stored data. These physical security requirements typically apply to third-parties engaged by cloud brokers.
Governmental organizations and their contractors that provide cloud services should make all their facilities available for their inspection as required by FISMA. Cloud service implementations using third-parties should enable evaluation of third-party premises as well. Through this process, auditors can ensure that the facilities meet the FISMA moderate impact security impact requirements.
Besides the physical facilities, FISMA encryption also requires an organization to ensure that file transfers are performed under the guidelines of the law. A myriad of NIST SP 800-53 controls can be addressed through the RSI Security managed file transfer solution, which includes the following:
- Robust access controls to ensure that data access is only limited to crucial people
- Comprehensive reporting and auditing to effectively provide the information needed for FISMA audits
- Data encryption and protection during the file transfer process to maintain best practices concerning information security
Encryption of information in transit is a FISMA requirement for moderate impact systems. This encryption protects information like usernames and passwords from being intercepted by prying eyes. Through FISMA encryption, organizations can communicate sensitive information on open wireless access points or public computer terminals in a library without being anxious about losing critical data on the process.
The cloud provider is also required to provide a FIPS 140-2-validated encryption algorithm to the organization to develop its encryption keys. Limiting the physical data center location centralizes meeting FISMA moderate requirements as local laws regarding data security, privacy, and ownership is necessary.
FISMA encryption has increased the security of sensitive federal data. Constant tracking for FISMA compliance provides organizations with the information they need to sustain an extreme level of protection and eradicate vulnerabilities in a cost-effective and timely manner.
Enterprises operating in the private sector, specifically those who do business with federal organizations can also benefit by maintaining FISMA-accredited encryption on the individual data they have at their disposal. This will not only provide companies in the private sector complete security but also enable them to gain an advantage when trying to add new business from federal agencies.
Meanwhile, government organizations and associated private enterprises that are unable to adhere to FISMA may suffer potential penalties that range to the reduction of federal funding or censure by congress. This may also lead to reputational damage as a result of data breaches, which usually occur every 39 seconds.
Why is FIPS 140-2 Important for FISMA Encryption?
As mentioned above, FISMA dictates that the U.S. government and federal agencies should use FIPS 140-2 validated cryptography modules since it sets an excellent security benchmark in securing sensitive information. The FIPS validated algorithms typically cover asymmetric and symmetric encryption techniques and the use of message authentication as well as hash standards.
Cryptography can be implemented to support various security solutions such as the protection of controlled unclassified and classified information, the enforcement of information separation, and the provision of digital signatures. FISMA’s usage of FIPS 140-2 validated encryption modules also require organizations to employ end-to-end encryption for securing files and emails.
Through these standards, organizations can ensure that only the intended recipients and sender can view the data. In other words, the servers storing the information or networks distributing the data can never read the encrypted files, therefore, preventing data leaks. Implementing the NIST-approved encryption algorithms enables government agencies and regulated industries to bolster their case for a FISMA accreditation.
Best Practices for FISMA Compliance
Acquiring FISMA compliance does not need to be a complicated procedure. The following are among the best practices to assist your organization meet all necessary FISMA encryption requirements.
- Categorize Data. Classifying information based on its risk levels upon creation helps organizations prioritize security policies and controls to employ the highest level of protection to their most confidential data.
- Enable Automated Encryption. Automatically encrypting sensitive data based on its risk or classification level enables organizations to make sure that their information is kept safe before, during, and after transmission.
- Obtain Written Evidence of FISMA Compliance. FISMA audits occur frequently, and the best way to stay on top is by maintaining comprehensive records of the steps you’ve taken to acquire compliance.
Encryption assumes a little-known but vital role in our daily lives from protecting personal data to guarding critical infrastructure such as information systems. Although data regulations have been strengthened to reflect the growing value of organizational information, the complexity of hacking techniques has also increased. Avoid costly data breaches and start your journey towards FISMA compliance by talking to an expert at RSI Security today to discuss your options.