What's Next for the House-Passed Internet of Things Security Bill

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Some security professionals point to broad exemptions in the Senate version of the legislation that could undermine the effort to guide federal procurement decisions.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., is hoping to expedite a bill through the Senate that would require certain internet-connected devices purchased by the government to meet minimum security requirements. 

“We’re hoping to get the bill hotlined,” Warner, the bill’s sponsor, said on a call with reporters Tuesday. He said the goal is to get it passed through the Senate by unanimous consent. 

On Tuesday the House passed its version of the bill—introduced last March by Reps. Will Hurd, R-Texas, and Robin Kelly, D-Ill—which had come a long way in addressing concerns raised by the security firm Rapid7 on how to protect the growing internet of things, or IoT. The House and Senate versions differ, and security professionals say a waiver provision in the Senate bill threatens to essentially void the thrust of the entire legislation. 

“This bill advances IoT cybersecurity in a meaningful way, and Reps. Kelly and Hurd deserve a lot of credit,” Harley Geiger, director of public policy at cybersecurity firm Rapid7, told Nextgov. “The exploitability of IoT is consistently identified as a pressing area of security risk, and it makes sense for the federal government to take the lead in raising the bar for devices it procures. We hope the Senate considers some of the improvements in the House bill and takes up the issue soon.”

Both the House and Senate bills direct the National Institute of Standards and Technology to develop guidelines on the use of IoT devices and the management of their vulnerabilities. These must cover secure development, identity management, patching and configuration management. The Office of Management and Budget, consulting with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, would then turn the guidelines into coherent standards for agencies to follow when purchasing covered devices.

Federal contractors and subcontractors would also have to adhere to guidelines developed in the same way to facilitate coordinated vulnerability disclosures. 

Agency heads would be prohibited from procuring devices that their chief information officers determine don’t meet the standards. They would also be able to waive the prohibition, if a covered device is deemed necessary for national security or research purposes.  

The Senate bill, in contrast, would allow waivers if use of the device is “(1) necessary for national security or for research purposes; (2) appropriate to the function of the covered device; (3) secured using alternative and effective methods; or (4) of substantially higher quality or affordability than a product that meets such policies, principles, standards, or guidelines.”

Such broad additional exemptions run directly counter to the spirit of the legislation, Rapid7 Vice President of Community and Public Affairs Jen Ellis wrote in July. 

“We’re completely lost as to the rationale of subclause (2),” Ellis wrote. “It appears to provide a massive loophole that effectively voids the entire legislation by saying, ‘As long as you use this printer as a printer, never mind about all the security mumbo-jumbo we just proposed, please go right ahead as you were.’ I’m guessing most of the tech the government is buying is expected to be used for the function for which the device was designed.” 

Ellis noted that using connected devices for purposes other than their main function–using a refrigerator as an alarm clock, for example–does add to its security risks, but that those aren’t removed entirely by using the device for its primary function. Ellis also strongly opposed the other criteria for exemption.

“Taken as a whole, the subclauses of this waiver section seem to cover enough ground to effectively make the legislation redundant in most scenarios,” she said. “Not only is this a highly inadvisable approach to IoT security, it reduces the legislation to wasted effort. It seems pointless for the bill to require OMB and NIST to go to all the not-inconsiderable trouble of drafting, consulting on, and implementing complicated guidelines and policies for federal IoT procurement security—and then waive it all if cheaper devices are available or if you only use the device for ‘appropriate functions.’”

Warner himself said the legislation was mainly aimed at low-cost devices that tend to be more plagued by security vulnerabilities.

Asked whether he would consider removing the additional waiver criteria, he said “Ideally. If we can get this closer to the House version, in my mind it makes sense, but those are still some of the issues that we’ve been working through with the committee and with our friends at NIST.”

The Senate bill has already cleared committee. 

The size of contractors the legislation would apply to also remains an open question. The House-passed bill says it would not apply to contracts or subcontracts exceeding the simple acquisition threshold. OMB in March issued a memo increasing that amount from $250,000 to $750,000 in reaction to the pandemic and notes the Federal Acquisition Regulation Council is in the process of updating the threshold. 

Hurd, also on the Tuesday call with reporters, said “the lower the better, in my opinion, however we gotta rely on NIST and the acquisition standard setting bodies to look at that.” 

Mariam Baksh is a staff correspondent for Nextgov.

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