The Federal Information Security Management Act or FISMA is a federal law passed in the United States that requires federal agencies to implement and maintain an information security strategy. FISMA was passed in 2002 to impose regulations on how federal agencies handle data.

What is FISMA?

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As outlined briefly above, FISMA was an act passed in US law that determined how government agencies could manage IT systems and data. FISMA was part of the larger E-Government Act of 2002, which sought to bring the IT management of government agencies up to scratch.

Under FISMA, companies and government agencies are graded with a FISMA score. The score is used to indicate how secure your internal systems are and determine how protected is the data you hold. More information on the security standards can be found in NIST SP 800-53.

What is NIST SP 800-53?

The National Institute of Standards and Technology Special Publication 800-53, or NIST 800-53 is a set of industry standards from NIST that set guidelines on what federal agencies and contractors need to do to comply with FISMA. NIST SP 800-53 discusses the security controls under the act.

The NIST SP 800-53 Risk Management Framework sets out a systematic process for ensuring compliance. The framework begins with an organization categorizing systems, finding the ideal security controls, implementing them, and assessing the long term effect. The process can be divided into six steps:

  1. Categorize/Create an Inventory of Information Systems
  2. Select applicable security controls
  3. Implement the security controls
  4. Assess the security controls
  5. Authorize the information systems
  6. Monitor the security controls

Who Needs to Follow FISMA?

Although FISMA originally applied to federal agencies the act has since been expanded to include state agencies implementing federal programs. Today, state agencies managing programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and student loans are expected to follow FISMA. In addition, private enterprises that manage government contracts, provide services, or receive grant money must also comply with the act.

FISMA often catches private enterprises off guard because they are unaware that contractual relationships make them fall under the remit of the law. Unfortunately, this is a mistake that can cause tremendous financial stress as a company faces the penalties of non-compliance.

What are the Penalties for Non-Compliance?

The penalties for failing to comply with FISMA are centered around losing government support. Institutions or companies that don’t meet the requirements will lose federal funding and be barred from future government contracts. For private enterprises that rely on government contracts being barred can be financially devastating.

The act imposes harsh penalties to ensure that federal agencies and relevant private organizations have adequate controls in place to protect the data that they hold. If you have a low FISMA score then there is a reasonable risk that you will leak sensitive information. Ensuring FISMA compliance will not only help to avoid penalties but keep your data safe as well.

How often is FISMA Compliance Assessed?

To ensure that federal agencies keep security controls updated, FISMA compliance is evaluated annually and reported to the OMB. The evaluation must be conducted independently by an external auditor or the agency Inspector General. Once the evaluation has been completed a report card will be made public to show those institutions that are protecting data.

FISMA Compliance Checklist 

The requirements of FISMA are vast. Being FISMA compliant isn’t just a case of paint by numbers but a meticulous process, that’s customized for your company. To comply with the legislation an agency or contractor needs to go through an entire lifecycle of taking inventory of current systems, creating a custom security policy to protect those assets, and monitoring the risks over the long term.

The compliance lifecycle can be broken down into the following steps:

  1. Maintain information System Inventory
  2. Categorize Information Systems
  3. Maintain a System Security Plan
  4. Utilize Security Controls
  5. Conduct Risk Assessments
  6. Certification and Accreditation
  7. Continuous Monitoring

The intention behind the legislation is for you to pick security controls that are on par with the risks your organization faces, and to revise those controls periodically to make sure there aren’t any vulnerabilities that are being overlooked.

Step #1: Maintain Information System Inventory

The requirement to maintain an information system inventory dictates that federal agencies and contractors must keep an inventory of all the IT systems used within the organization. The inventory must include the following information: description, manufacturer, model number, date of purchase or lease when it was deployed when the hardware was last updated, a record of maintenance or repairs, a record of service, and disposition.

Step #2: Categorize Information Systems

The next requirement states that agencies should categorize information systems according to risk level. Risk categorization is used to identify those systems that hold the most sensitive data so that the agency can then implement the necessary security measures to protect this data from being compromised.

The Federal Information Processing Standards or FIPS 199 is the standard that determines the risk category of IT systems. FIPS 199 categorizes the risk of a system in three ways: confidentiality, integrity, and availability. Each of these measures is then rated as low, medium, or high.

Step #3: Maintain a System Security Plan

Under the legislation, organizations must create a system security plan detailing security controls and policies. The plan must include a Plan of Action and Milestones which should be reviewed periodically. In the document, there must be a range of security controls, milestones, and timetables for implementing new controls. It is critical that the document is regularly updated.

Step #4: Utilize Security Controls

Once the security plan has been created it is time to start implementing security controls. NIST SP 800-53 acts as a catalog of security controls that you can use to protect your systems. The requirements listed in NIST SP 800-53 apply to “all components of an information system that process, store, or transmit federal information.”

There is a range of security controls discussed including:

  • Risk Assessment
  • Certification, Accreditation and Security Assessments
  • System Services and Acquisitions
  • Security Planning
  • Configuration Management
  • System and Communications Protection
  • Personnel Security
  • Awareness and Training
  • Physical and Environmental Protection
  • Media Protection
  • Contingency Planning
  • System and Information Integrity
  • Incident Response
  • Identification and Authentication
  • Access Control
  • Accountability and Audit

It is important to note that the security controls you choose to implement should be most relevant to the type of systems that you’re using and you need to protect. You don’t need to apply all the controls listed in NIST SP 800-53 but you do need to make sure that those that you do apply meet the necessary security standards. Pick those controls that will protect the type of system you’re using the most.

Step #5: Conduct Risk Assessments

At this stage, it is time to assess the security controls you’re using to determine if there are any gaps in your process. NIST SP 800-30 outlines how risk assessments should be conducted. You need to protect everything from individuals to assets, and operations. Once you’ve conducted the risk assessment you should also identify if there are any other controls you need to protect data. The idea is that you scrutinize your controls to make sure that you have all the bases covered.

Step #6 Certification and Accreditation

After tweaking your controls and completing the necessary documentation you need to get your system controls certified and accredited to show that they function properly. If the review is successful then the information system will be accredited. The certification process is outlined in NIST SP 800-37 “Guide for the Security Certification and Accreditation of Federal Information Systems.”

Broadly speaking, the certification and accreditation process can be broken down into four sections: planning, certification, accreditation, and continuous monitoring.

Step #7 Continuous Monitoring

Finally, you will need to monitor the security controls and systems for modifications and changes. Types of monitoring you will need to incorporate include configuration management, file integrity monitoring, vulnerability scanning, and log analysis. Each tool has a different use case. For example, a vulnerability scanner can be used to scan devices for entry points and vulnerabilities. A file integrity monitoring system will help make sure that you can verify system files.

Software for FISMA Compliance

Working towards FISMA compliance is a hundred times easier if you have the right tools to fall back on. Given the importance of the regulations, many vendors have designed solutions specifically to comply with the requirements listed in the legislation. In this section we’re going to look at a couple of the tools you can use to help stay on top of FISMA:

SolarWinds Security Event Manager (FREE TRIAL)

SolarWinds Security Event Manager

SolarWinds Security Event Manager is a log and event management solution with integrated compliance reporting tools. The event processing capabilities of the software help you to manage IT assets and risks by identifying security events. You can control the type of events you screen for with rule-based log and event correlation.

Once you’ve collected log data you can generate FISMA audit reports to document network events. All you need to do is check the FISMA compliant box on the Manage Categories page and you’re good to go. These reports are customizable to make sure you can view all the necessary information.

For auditing compliance and continuous monitoring, SolarWinds Security Event Manager is ideal. SolarWinds Security Event Manager starts at a price of $4,665 (£3,800). You can download the 30-day free trial.

SolarWinds Security Event Manager Download 30-day FREE Trial

ManageEngine EventLog Analyzer (Log Management Software)

ManageEngine EventLog Analyzer

ManageEngine EventLog Analyzer is a log management solution that offers reports that are FISMA compliant. The software can collect, monitor, and analyze log data from your network and identify cyber-attacks. You can convert this data into reports to comply with the legislation.

There are out of the box reports for Audit and Accountability, Certification (AU), Accreditation and Security Assessments (CA), Contingency Planning (CP), Access Control (AC), Identification and Authentication (IA), and Configuration Management (CM) requirements.

For Accreditation and Security Assessments, ManageEngine EventLog Analyzer has a Windows Services report that details when a service was started and the device the service is running on. For Contingency Planning, reports provide details on the time, date, and user who initiated backup measures. All of these reports are supported with real-time email and SMS alerts which notify the user about unauthorized access to systems in the network.

There are three versions of ManageEngine EventLog Analyzer available: Free Edition, Premium, and Distributed. The Free version supports up to five log sources. The Premium version starts at $595 (£484) per year for 10-1000 log sources. The Distributed version starts at $2495 (£2,033) for 50-unlimited log sources. You can download the free trial.

FISMA Compliance: A Long Term Effort 

Managing security procedures and staying FISMA compliant is an uphill battle but this FISMA compliance checklist should set you off on the right foot. Both government agencies and contractors will benefit from applying the standards outlined in FISMA and NIST SP 800-53.

By making a conscious effort to protect systems from malfunction, unauthorized users and attackers, entities can ensure that confidential data stays that way. Complying with the regulations is a long-term effort.

Whether you choose to go the route of ensuring compliance with an in-house contractor or specialist consultant is up to you. If you want to minimize potential liabilities then working with a consultant is one of the best ways to verify that your security measures are up to scratch.

While the cost of designed security controls compliant with the act is vast, it is worth remembering the cost of non-compliance. The short-term investment is well worth the long-term gain of retaining government contracts.