Obama Administration-led data-classification overhaul to bring benefits, costs, disruption

New standard for 'controlled unclassified information' expected to have wide impact on IT and physical security

Chicago -- The Obama Administration's push to overhaul how the feds share sensitive -- but not "classified" -- information is expected to come to fruition next year as a major regulatory change with huge consequences to federal agencies and their contractors.

When President Obama signed Executive Order 13556 in 2010, he set in motion a reform process intended to move federal agencies away from the many different ways each has set up to handle IT and physical security associated with sharing all sorts of information that’s restricted but unclassified with the wider public, other agencies and foreign governments. This might include anything from taxpayer data to patent information to specifics about how nuclear materials are handled.

The Obama Administration’s “Controlled Unclassified Information” (CUI) program, as it’s known, was established in order to come up with a uniform process for how to properly share and protect data, whether it’s in a computer or stored in filing cabinets and delivered by courier. While uniformity in what agencies do may have long-term benefits, the advent next year of what’s expected to be a new CUI standard is also anticipated to be disruptive and expensive for federal agencies and their many contractors that will have to change both physical and IT systems and practices.

“The agencies will have to discontinue some practices,” acknowledges John Fitzpatrick, director of the information security oversight office at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the agency spearheading the government-wide change process over CUI in coordination with the office of Management & Budget and the president.

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Fitzpatrick is candid in declaring there will be an impact on information systems and physical security processes that agencies have grown accustomed to as each follows their own way to share unclassified but restricted data.

Speaking at the ASIS Conference in Chicago this week, Fitzpatrick said NARA has already conducted the extensive process of analyzing categories of unclassified but restricted information with agency input. He said NARA has defined 22 categories and many more sub-categories, ranging broadly from “agriculture” to “copyright” to “law enforcement” to “NATO” to “financial” to “information systems vulnerability information” and “tax.” The agencies have been asked to tell NARA not only how they protect and share unclassified information, but what regulations, statutes and laws govern their processes. Some have found this to be a hard task and aren’t sure why they do certain things at all, he noted.

The agencies will have to discontinue some practices.

— John Fitzpatrick, director of the information security oversight office at the National Archives and Records Administration

This “inventory of practices” phase is basically done and there’s now a draft CUI rule that is going to undergo a comment process while agencies also provide input on how their IT and physical security processes will change to adapt to any new CUI standard that emerges next year.

One expression that’s often heard, “for official use only,” doesn’t really have a federal definition in policy and today is defined differently among the federal agencies, Fitzpatrick remarked. This phrase is likely to fade into oblivion after CUI becomes federal practice.

Fitzpatrick said he is hoping to have the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) working alongside the effort headed up by NARA to help set IT standards for all this. At this point, there is no specific meta-data standard for tagging data envisioned for CUI but the topic is coming up in the CUI process, he added.

Towards the end of next year it’s anticipated there will be an official Executive Order on how CUI will be implemented, Fitzpatrick said. Discussions are already starting with federal agencies on what they expect this all to cost as they migrate to new rules for physical and IT security related to sharing unclassified data that’s restricted. Federal contractors, perhaps even 100,000 of them, will also see significant impact from all this, and grumbling can be heard.

The CUI reform process is full of risk since trying to change something as large as the federal government is hardly simple. But standardizing on unclassified data-sharing is today a common practice in both Canada and European countries, remarked an individual serving in the Canadian Department of Defence after hearing Fitzpatrick’s presentation. He noted standardization brings “consistency” and makes it easier to know to to proceed when all the federal agencies no longer have separate expectations and demands.

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG publication and website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: MessmerE. E-mail: emessmer@nww.com

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