How Multifactor Authentication Can Help U.S. Government Contractors Achieve DFARS Compliance

To say that organizations today are concerned about cybersecurity would be a gross understatement. Every time we turn around, there are reports of incidents where cybercriminals have either gamed a global social media tool or compromised a corporate customer database.

Needless to say, the U.S. government has also been extremely focused on cybersecurity — as evidenced by its recent directive, the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement (DFARS), which aims to help government agencies protect their own data and that of organizations with which they do business.

What Does the DFARS Require?

The regulation requires any Department of Defense (DOD) contractor or subcontractor who handles controlled unclassified information (CUI) to comply with the data-protection standards outlined in the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Special Publication (SP) 800-171. According to NIST, CUI consists of “any sensitive federal government information routinely processed, stored or transmitted by a contractor in the course of its work providing essential products and services to federal agencies.”

DFARS is part of a worldwide trend of increasingly stringent data security standards. In May 2018, for example, the European Union (EU) enacted its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to enhance user privacy and provide legal recourse when refuting algorithm-based decisions. Also, the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) requires companies that accept credit card payments to host customer data securely with a PCI-compliant hosting provider. These and countless other standards show that data security is top of mind for industry leaders around the world.

The Multifactor Mandate: Why MFA Is Crucial in Today’s Threat Landscape

One of the most challenging requirements outlined in the DFARS directive is the mandatory use of multifactor authentication (MFA) for all local and remote accounts associated with users who access controlled, unclassified information. MFA requires users to provide two or more unique factors to gain access to a given digital infrastructure. These factors can include something the user knows, such as a password or personal identification number (PIN); something the user has, such as a cryptographic device or token; and something the user is, such as a fingerprint, facial scan or other biometric element.

The best MFA technology enables organizations to authenticate users with multiple factors, define policies for those factors and apply them to specific IDs. These advanced solutions integrate directly with the organization’s security server and not any specific authentication factor, so security teams can add factors without changing the MFA infrastructure.

Keep in mind that the new DFARS rules apply to both on-premises and cloud-based systems unless the contracting officer provides written, specific authorization. All cloud computing services must be located in the U.S. and support systemwide search and access for inspections, audits and investigations.

MFA is a logical outgrowth of the myriad processes and protocols that have been developed over the past several decades to keep data safe. Security has been in a constant state of evolution ever since the early days of computing, when users first had to enter a password to log into a machine.

Today, we need more advanced solutions that can address countless new cybersecurity challenges, such as the increasing use of Wi-Fi to access enterprise data, the migration of apps and data to the cloud, the widespread use of mobile devices for work and the growing sophistication of cybercriminal tactics.

DFARS Compliance Is a Gradual Process

While the deadline to achieve compliance has come and gone, it’s important to understand that organizations can’t realize DFARS compliance overnight. Large contractors may have over 250,000 employees and thousands of active contracts, so connecting the dots between where their most valuable data assets reside, who is accessing them, how they are interacting with them and whether they are meeting the NIST 800-171 requirements is a daunting task that could take years to complete.

Some organizations made every effort to comply by the Dec. 31, 2017 deadline, but failed due to the complexity of their relationships and the nebulous issue of data ownership.

If you aren’t sure whether DFARS affects you, it’s a good idea to check your contracts. The DFARS data security clause has been included in all solicitations issued and awarded by the DoD for at least the past year, except for commercial off-the-shelf items.

MFA is a powerful tool for ensuring safe and secure access to interactions where sensitive government information is routinely processed, stored or transmitted. While using MFA to monitor access to CUI might have been considered superfluous as recently as a few years ago, I think we can all agree that these extra layers of security are critical in today’s ever-evolving threat environment.

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Mike Zagorski

Offering Manager, IBM

Mike Zagorski has over 20 years’ experience with IBM and is currently an Offering Manager in IBM Security division with a focus on IBM Z. He is responsible for IBM’s zSecure Suite including Multi-Factor Authentication for z/OS and has held several management positions in z/OS security development and IBM Z software delivery. In addition to his management experience, he has held positions in development, test and business operations. He holds Master of Science degrees in Computer Science and Management from SUNY Binghamton and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute respectively.