Continuous Authority to Operate (cATO), sometimes known as Rapid ATO, is becoming necessary as the DoD and civilian agencies put more applications and data in the cloud. Speed and agility are becoming increasingly critical to the mission as the government and federal system integrators seek new features and functionalities to support the warfighter and other critical U.S. government priorities.

In this blog post, we'll break down the concept of cATO in understandable terms, explain its benefits, explore the myths and realities of cATO and show how Anchore can help your organization meet this standard.

What is Continuous Authority To Operate (cATO)?

Continuous ATO is the merging of traditional authority to operate (ATO) risk management practices with flexible and responsive DevSecOps practices to improve software security posture.

Traditional Risk Management Framework (RMF) implementations focus on obtaining authorization to operate once every three years. The problem with this approach is that security threats aren’t static, they evolve. cATO is the evolution of this framework which requires the continual authorization of software components, such as containers, by building security into the entire development lifecycle using DevSecOps practices. All software development processes need to ensure that the application and its components meet security levels equal to or greater than what an ATO requires.

You authorize once and use the software component many times. With a cATO, you gain complete visibility into all assets, software security, and infrastructure as code.

By automating security, you are then able to obtain and maintain cATO. There’s no better statement about the current process for obtaining an ATO than this commentary from Mary Lazzeri with Federal Computer Week:

“The muddled, bureaucratic process to obtain an ATO and launch an IT system inside government is widely maligned — but beyond that, it has become a pervasive threat to system security. The longer government takes to launch a new-and-improved system, the longer an old and potentially insecure system remains in operation.”

The Three Pillars of cATO

To achieve cATO, an Authorizing Official (AO) must demonstrate three main competencies:

  1. Ongoing visibility: A robust continuous monitoring strategy for RMF controls must be in place, providing insight into key cybersecurity activities within the system boundary.
  2. Active cyber defense: Software engineers and developers must be able to respond to cyber threats in real-time or near real-time, going beyond simple scanning and patching to deploy appropriate countermeasures that thwart adversaries.
  3. Adoption of an approved DevSecOps reference design: This involves integrating development, security, and operations to close gaps, streamline processes, and ensure a secure software supply chain.

Looking to learn more about the DoD DevSecOps Reference Design? It's commonly referred to as a DoD Software Factory. Anchore has been helping organizations and agencies put the Sec in DevSecOps by securing traditional software factories, transforming them into DoD software factories.

Continuous ATO vs. ATO

The primary difference between traditional ATOs and continuous ATOs is the frequency at which a system seeks to prove the validity of its security claims. ATOs require that a system can prove its security once every three years whereas cATO systems prove their security every moment that the system is running.

The Benefits of Continuous ATO

Continuous ATO is essentially the process of applying DevSecOps principles to the compliance framework of Authority to Operate. Automating the individual compliance processes speeds up development work by avoiding repetitive tasks to obtain permission. Next, we’ll explore additional (and sometimes unexpected) benefits of cATO.

Increase Velocity of System Deployment

CI/CD systems and the DevSecOps design pattern were created to increase the velocity at which new software can be deployed from development to production. On top of that, Continuous ATOs can be more easily scaled to accommodate changes in the system or the addition of new systems, thanks to the automation and flexibility offered by DevSecOps environments.

Reduce Time and Complexity to Achieve an ATO

With the cATO approach, you can build a system to automate the process of generating the artifacts to achieve ATO rather than manually producing them every three years. This automation in DevSecOps pipelines helps in speeding up the ATO process, as it can generate the artifacts needed for the AO to make a risk determination. This reduces the time spent on manual reviews and approvals. Much of the same information will be requested for each ATO, and there will be many overlapping security controls. Designing the DevSecOps pipeline to produce the unique authorization package for each ATO from the corpus of data and information available can lead to increased efficiency via automation and re-use.

No Need to Reinvent AND Maintain the Wheel

When you inherit the security properties of the DevSecOps reference design or utilize an approved managed platform, then the provider will shoulder the burden. Someone else has already done the hard work of creating a framework of tools that integrate together to achieve cATO, re-use their effort to achieve cATO for your system. 

Alternatively, you can utilize a platform provider, such as Platform One, Kessel Run, Black Pearl, or the Army Software Factory to outsource the infrastructure management.

Learn how Anchore helped Platform One achieve cATO and become the preeminent DoD software factory.

Myths & Realities

Myth or Reality?: DevSecOps can be at Odds with cATO

Myth! DevSecOps in the DoD and civilian government agencies are still the domain of early adopters. The strict security and compliance requirements — the ATO in particular — of the federal government make it a fertile ground for DevSecOps adoption. Government leaders such as Nicolas Chaillan, former chief software officer for the United States Air Force, are championing DevSecOps standards and best practices that the DoD, federal government agencies, and even the commercial sector can use to launch their own DevSecOps initiatives.

One goal of DevSecOps is to develop and deploy applications as quickly as possible. An ATO is a bureaucratic morass if you’re not proactive. When you build a DevSecOps toolchain that automates container vulnerability scanning and other areas critical to ATO compliance controls, can you put in the tools, reporting, and processes to test against ATO controls while still in your development environment.

DevSecOps, much like DevOps, suffers from a marketing problem as vendors seek to spin the definitions and use cases that best suit their products. The DoD and government agencies need more champions like Chaillan in government service who can speak to the benefits of DevSecOps in a language that government decision-makers can understand.

Myth or Reality?: Agencies need to adopt DevSecOps to prepare for the cATO 

Reality! One of the cATO requirements is to demonstrate that you are aligned with an Approved DevSecOps Reference Design. The “shift left” story that DevSecOps espouses in vendor marketing literature and sales decks isn’t necessarily one size fits all. Likewise, DoD and federal agency DevSecOps play at a different level. 

Using DevSecOps to prepare for a cATO requires upfront analysis and planning with your development and operations teams’ participation. Government program managers need to collaborate closely with their contractor teams to put the processes and tools in place upfront, including container vulnerability scanning and reporting. Break down your Continuous Integration/Continuous Development (CI/CD) toolchain with an eye on how you can prepare your software components for continuous authorization.

Myth or Reality?: You need to have SBOMs for everything in your environment

Myth! need to be able to show your Authorizing Official (AO) that you have "the ability to conduct active cyber defense in order to respond to cyber threats in real time." If a zero day (like log4j) comes along you need to demonstrate you are equipped to identify the impact on your environment and remediate the issue quickly. Showing your AO that you manage SBOMs and can quickly query them to respond to threats will have you in the clear for this requirement.

Myth or Reality?: cATO is about technology and process only

Myth! As more elements of the DoD and civilian federal agencies push toward the cATO to support their missions, and a DevSecOps culture takes hold, it’s reasonable to expect that such a culture will influence the cATO process. Central tenets of a DevSecOps culture include:

  • Collaboration
  • Infrastructure as Code (IaC)
  • Automation
  • Monitoring

Each of these tenets contributes to the success of a cATO. Collaboration between the government program office, contractor’s project team leadership, third-party assessment organization (3PAO), and FedRAMP program office is at the foundation of a well-run authorization. IAC provides the tools to manage infrastructure such as virtual machines, load balancers, networks, and other infrastructure components using practices similar to how DevOps teams manage software code.

Myth or Reality?: Reusable Components Make a Difference in cATO

Reality! The growth of containers and other reusable components couldn’t come at a better time as the Department of Defense (DoD) and civilian government agencies push to the cloud driven by federal cloud initiatives and demands from their constituents.

Reusable components save time and budget when it comes to authorization because you can authorize once and use the authorized components across multiple projects. Look for more news about reusable components coming out of Platform One and other large-scale government DevSecOps and cloud projects that can help push this development model forward to become part of future government cloud procurements.

How Anchore Helps Organizations Implement the Continuous ATO Process

Anchore's comprehensive suite of solutions is designed to help federal agencies and federal system integrators meet the three requirements of cATO.

Ongoing Visibility

Anchore Enterprise can be integrated into a build pipeline, image registry and runtime environment in order to provide a comprehensive view of the entire software development lifecycle (SDLC). On top of this, Anchore provides out-of-the-box policy packs mapped to NIST 800-53 controls for RMF, ensuring a robust continuous monitoring strategy. Real-time notifications alert users when images are out of compliance, helping agencies maintain ongoing visibility into their system's security posture.

Active Cyber Defense

While Anchore Enterprise is integrated into the decentralized components of the SDLC, it provides a centralized database to track and monitor every component of software in all environments. This centralized datastore enables agencies to quickly triage zero-day vulnerabilities with a single database query. Remediation plans for impacted application teams can be drawn up in hours rather than days or weeks. By setting rules that flag anomalous behavior, such as image drift or blacklisted packages, Anchore supports an active cyber defense strategy for federal systems.

Adoption of an Approved DevSecOps Reference Design

Anchore aligns with the DoD DevSecOps Reference Design by offering solutions for:

  • Container hardening (Anchore DISA policy pack)
  • Container policy enforcement (Anchore Enterprise policies)
  • Container image selection (Iron Bank)
  • Artifact storage (Anchore image registry integration)
  • Release decision-making (Anchore Kubernetes Admission Controller)
  • Runtime policy monitoring (Anchore Kubernetes Automated Inventory)

Anchore is specifically mentioned in the DoD Container Hardening Process Guide, and the Iron Bank relies on Anchore technology to scan and enforce policy that ensures every image in Iron Bank is hardened and secure.

Final Thoughts

Continuous Authorization To Operate (cATO) is a vital framework for federal system integrators and agencies to maintain a strong security posture in the face of evolving cybersecurity threats. By ensuring ongoing visibility, active cyber defense, and the adoption of an approved DevSecOps reference design, software engineers and developers can effectively protect their systems in real-time. Anchore's comprehensive suite of solutions is specifically designed to help meet the three requirements of cATO, offering a robust, secure, and agile approach to stay ahead of cybersecurity threats. 

By partnering with Anchore, federal system integrators and federal agencies can confidently navigate the complexities of cATO and ensure their systems remain secure and compliant in a rapidly changing cyber landscape. Want to better understand how Anchore's platform can help? See how Anchore Federal can be used as an 'easy button' to insert security into any DevOps pipeline and transform a normal software factory into a DoD software factory that is ready for cATO.