Gov’t software patching system needs improvement

Based on agency-reported data, U.S. government agencies generally are implementing important common practices for effective patch management, such as performing systems inventories and providing information security training. However, they are not consistently performing others, such as risk assessments and testing all patches before deployment. From the GAO:

Gov’t software patching system needs improvement
Based on agency-reported data, agencies generally are implementing important common practices for effective patch management, such as performing systems inventories and providing information security training. However, they are not consistently performing others, such as risk assessments and testing all patches before deployment.

Additional information on key aspects of agencies’ patch management practices–such as their documentation of patch management policies and procedures and the frequency with which systems are monitored to ensure that patches are installed–could provide OMB, Congress, and agencies themselves with consistent data that could better enable an assessment of the effectiveness of an agency’s patch management processes.

Several automated tools and services are available to assist agencies in performing patch management. These tools and services typically include a wide range of functionality, including methods to inventory computers, identify relevant patches and workarounds, test patches, and report network status information to various levels of management. A centralized resource could provide agencies with selected services such as the testing of patches, a patch management training curriculum, and development of criteria for patch management tools and services. A governmentwide service could lower costs to–and resource requirements of–individual agencies, while facilitating their implementation of selected patch management practices.

Agencies face several challenges to implement effective patch management practices, including (1) quickly installing patches while implementing effective patch management practices, (2) patching heterogeneous systems, (3) ensuring that mobile systems receive the latest patches, (4) avoiding unacceptable downtime when patching high-availability systems, and (5) dedicating sufficient resources toward patch management.

Agency officials and computer security experts identified a number of additional steps that can be taken by vendors, the security community, and the federal government to assist agencies in mitigating the risks created by software vulnerabilities. For example, more rigorous software engineering practices by software vendors could reduce the number of software vulnerabilities and the need for patches. In addition, the research and development of more capable technologies could help secure information systems against cyber attacks. Also, the federal government could use its substantial purchasing power to influence software vendors to deliver more secure systems.

GAO recommends that the Director of OMB issue guidance to agencies to provide more refined information on patch management practices, and determine the feasibility of providing selected centralized patch management services. OMB officials generally agreed with our recommendations.

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