In face of massive cybersecurity threat, government security dawdles

Despite efforts to improve, GAO report says most government agencies are at risk of security attack

At a time when the cyberthreat level is at its peak, many federal agencies continue to struggle with IT security.

Weaknesses in information security policies and practices at 24 major federal agencies continue to place the confidentiality, integrity and availability of sensitive information and information systems at risk. Consistent with this risk, reports of security incidents from federal agencies are on the rise, increasing more than 650% over the past five years, concluded a report from the watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office this week.

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"Each of the 24 agencies -- including the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and the IRS -- reviewed had weaknesses in information security controls. An underlying reason for these weaknesses is that agencies have not fully implemented their information security programs. As a result, they have limited assurance that controls are in place and operating as intended to protect their information resources, thereby leaving them vulnerable to attack or compromise," the report stated.

The GAO said all agencies had issues with five central security components:

(1) Access controls, which ensure that only authorized individuals can read, alter or delete data.

(2) Configuration management controls, which provide assurance that only authorized software programs are implemented.

(3) Segregation of duties, which reduces the risk that one individual can independently perform inappropriate actions without detection.

(4) Continuity of operations planning, which helps avoid significant disruptions in computer-dependent operations.

(5) Agencywide information security programs, which provide a framework for ensuring that risks are understood and that effective controls are selected and implemented.

"All 24 major federal agencies had access control weaknesses during fiscal year 2010. For example, 18 agencies experienced problems with identifying and authenticating information system users, with at least 7 of these agencies allowing weak authentication practices that could increase vulnerability to unauthorized use of their information systems. Nineteen agencies had weaknesses in controls for authorizing access in such areas as management of inactive accounts and ensuring that only those with a legitimate need had access to sensitive accounts. In addition, 16 agencies did not adequately monitor networks for suspicious activities or report security incidents that had been detected. Without adequate access controls in place, agencies cannot ensure that their information resources are protected from intentional or unintentional harm," the GAO stated.

In reports for fiscal years 2010 and 2011, GAO and agency inspectors general have made hundreds of recommendations to agencies for actions necessary to resolve control deficiencies and information security program shortfalls. Agencies generally agreed with most of the GAO's recommendations and indicated that they would implement them.

Obviously much more needs to be done.

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