Bloomberg News

Sensitive U.S. Data Imperiled by Agencies’ Weak Cyberdefenses

October 04, 2011

Oct. 4 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. government agencies’ failure to meet the requirements of a 2002 information-security law are putting sensitive federal data and computer systems at risk, according to congressional auditors.

Reports of security incidents at 24 agencies have increased more than sevenfold over the past five years, according to a Government Accountability Office report released yesterday. The agencies haven’t fully implemented security measures mandated under the law, according to the report, which was sent to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

“Threats to systems supporting critical infrastructure and federal information systems are evolving and growing,” according to the report. “Advanced persistent threats -- where an adversary that possesses sophisticated levels of expertise and significant resources can attack by using multiple means such as cyber, physical, or deception to achieve its objectives -- pose increasing risks.”

Agencies have not taken steps to comply with GAO security recommendations, according to the report. For example, the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. have not restricted database and system access for users to only what is needed to perform their jobs. The FDIC also does not always encrypt sensitive data, according to the report.

“There is perhaps no greater vulnerability that Congress has yet to address through legislation than the insecurity of cyberspace,” Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the governmental affairs committee, said in a statement. “We must fortify the government’s efforts to safeguard its own cyber networks from attack and build a public/private partnership to promote stronger national cyber-security.”

‘Risk Management’

The government needs to go beyond the requirements of the current law, which is outdated, said Liesyl Franz, vice president of cybersecurity and global public policy at TechAmerica, a Washington-based technology industry group.

“It’s hard to say that if you’re fully compliant, you’d be more secure,” Franz said in an interview yesterday. It’s more important for agencies to be fully aware of their network and the systems in which they keep data, she said.

If agencies “haven’t fully embraced the risk-management aspect of this,” they should focus on having better awareness of their vulnerabilities, including the number of connections to their networks and the number of people capable of accessing their systems, Franz said.

41,776 Incidents

The Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) of 2002 established government-wide security standards for computer systems and set reporting requirements for U.S. agencies. The GAO is required to make periodic reports to Congress on government compliance.

Federal agencies control 11,310 information systems, according to the report. Of those, 1,296 are high-impact, meaning a loss of system integrity or availability may have a “catastrophic adverse effect” on “organizational operations, organizational assets or individuals,” according to the report.

The number of incidents reported by federal agencies to Homeland Security Department’s Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) increased to 41,776 incidents in fiscal year 2010 from 5,503 incidents in fiscal year 2006, according to the report.

Thirty percent of the incidents reported by agencies to US- CERT involved the installation of malicious software that infects an operating system or application, according to the report. Agencies are not required to report successfully quarantined viruses, worms and other malicious code.

‘Obvious Weaknesses’

An additional 26 percent of incidents in 2010 are still being investigated, according to the report. In 14 percent of reported incidents, someone gained access to an agency network, system, application, data or other resources without permission.

“These findings are all the more troubling given that GAO has been telling us for some time that these are areas of vulnerability and must be addressed, yet we still haven’t made enough progress in shoring up these obvious weaknesses,” Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat and chairman of the subcommittee on federal financial management, said in a statement.

The Homeland Security Department “has taken many steps to improve the cybersecurity posture of federal agencies,” Chris Ortman, a DHS spokesman, said in an e-mail. The department has pushed for agencies to be able to continuously monitor the security of their networks, he said.

Authorized Users

The GAO found that most of the agencies reviewed have weaknesses in access controls, which ensure that only authorized users can access data, and configuration management controls, which assure that only authorized software is installed.

FISMA requires the Office of Management and Budget to oversee policy implementation and compliance, agency heads and chief information officers to protect their systems, inspectors general to conduct yearly independent evaluations and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to provide security guidance.

OMB has taken some steps to improve federal information security, according to the GAO report. The office has created tools to increase security reporting by agencies and has set metrics for reporting, though the majority of those metrics did not establish performance goals.

Agencies’ efforts to educate users on security awareness are falling short, according to the report. The agencies reported that while 92 percent of users with log-in privileges had received training, there are weaknesses such as how current or specialized the training is.

In one security incident described by the GAO, a user on an unnamed agency’s network “was tricked by a carefully crafted e- mail to go to a website on the pretense that he had won a new car in a lottery,” according to the report. The user later “found that several credit cards had been opened in his name and large amounts of pet supplies had been ordered without his knowledge.”

--Editors: Michael Shepard, Allan Holmes

To contact the reporter on this story: Juliann Francis in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Shepard at

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