Application Security

Executive Branch Makes Significant Progress As DMARC Deadline Nears

The DHS directive on email security has an approaching deadline that most departments in the executive branch might actually meet.

Nearly a year ago, the Department of Homeland Security issued Binding Operation Directive 18-01, which requires all domains in the executive branch of the federal government to protect websites and email with HTTPS, TLS, and DMARC. The deadline for implementation? Oct. 16, 2018. With less than a month to go before that deadline, where are the departments, bureaus, and agencies in their efforts toward compliance? The news, as of late September, is, perhaps, surprisingly good.

The latest progress report published by Agari, which has worked with the DHS to monitor progress toward the deadline, shows that 83% of executive branch domains have enabled DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance). The protocol, which is used to prevent domain spoofing, has three implementation levels: basic monitoring, "p=none"; intermediate containment, "p=quarantine"; and blocking, "p=reject." As of Sept. 14, 64% of the 1,144 executive branch domains have implemented the strongest "p=reject" level, which the directive requires, ahead of the deadline, Agari reports.

Phil Reitinger, president and CEO of the Global Cyber Alliance, which has created a set of resources for agencies still working to reach compliance, says that the directive is an important step in protecting communications from within the civilian departments of the federal executive branch. "I'm very encouraged by the progress that's been made and very supportive of DHS stepping forward to impose these sorts of requirements to increase the security of both the government and the people who live in the United States and receive government e-mail," he says.

As laudable as protecting citizens may be as a goal for the directive, there's more to the protection than reassuring those outside the government. "It's not just ordinary citizens – it's other governments, it's from agency to agency, and from government to its private-sector partners where DMARC is critical," Reitinger says. "It's a key way to stop the very worst kind of phishing and email-based attacks in their tracks."

Those attacks continue to be a significant threat to individuals and organizations. According to the "2018 Q1 Email Fraud Landscape," released by Valimail, 6.4 billion fake emails (with fake "From:" addresses) are sent worldwide every day, with the US the primary source of those fake messages.

DMARC is a form of protection already common to nongovernmental email. "If you use Google, or Microsoft, or Yahoo Web mail, then you're going to get a screen for DMARC," Reitinger says. "About 85 percent of consumer inboxes are protected by this."

One difference between the DMARC implemented by consumer email providers and that required by BOD 18-01 is that the consumer providers were likely to have been able to budget for the deployment process – a luxury not afforded the executive IT departments. And there are serious consequences for making mistakes in that deployment. "If, for example, the Social Security Administration deployed DMARC and they did it wrong, then they wouldn't be able to send an email to anybody," Reitinger explains. "For at least 85% of consumers in the United States, the mail would go straight to trash or be marked as spam. So you have to do it right."

Whatever the final expenditures turn out to be, Reitinger is confident that the investment will be worthwhile. "I would say it's a low investment for the benefit provided," he says. "One of the cool things about DMARC is, the more broadly it's deployed, the more powerful it is." At a certain critical mass of deployment, systems could automatically mark as spam any mail from a domain not deployed as DMARC.

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Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and ... View Full Bio

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