Homeland Security IT chief blamed for cyberwoes

Homeland Security IT chief blamed for cyberwoes
Homeland Security IT chief blamed for cyberwoes 

By Anne Broache
Staff Writer, CNET
June 20, 2007

WASHINGTON -- In response to reports of persistent cybersecurity flaws 
at the Department of Homeland Security, a top congressional Democrat on 
Wednesday questioned whether the agency's chief information officer 
deserves to keep his job.

The department charged with safeguarding the security of the nation's 
computer systems has not been setting a good example and CIO Scott 
Charbo hasn't shown he's serious about fixing its vulnerabilities, said 
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House of Representatives 
Homeland Security Committee.

"How can we ask the private sector to better train employees and 
implement more consistent access controls when DHS allows employees to 
send classified e-mails over unclassified networks and contractors to 
attach unapproved laptops to the network?" Thompson asked at an 
afternoon hearing here held by a subcommittee that deals with 
cybersecurity issues.

He was referring to the Homeland Security department's revelation, as 
part of an ongoing subcommittee probe into its information security 
practices, that it experienced 844 security-related "incidents" on its 
computer systems in 2005 and 2006. Those episodes included unauthorized 
users hooking up personal computers to government networks, unauthorized 
software installations, classified e-mails traveling over unclassified 
networks, suspicious botnet activity, trojans and virus infections, 
classified data spillages and misconfigured firewalls.

Charbo, for his part, downplayed the lengthy list, saying that they 
didn't indicate actual penetrations of the system and varied widely in 
the level of severity. "Those are events that we report on as a 
data-gathering tool," the IT chief told the politicians, adding that he 
was confident all breaches considered significant had been addressed 

The congressional panel that convened Wednesday's hearing has been 
probing the extent to which various federal agencies are equipped to 
handle cyberthreats. At a hearing in April, committee members accused 
officials at the Commerce and State Departments of being ill-prepared to 
handle such threats in light of reports of intrusions from Chinese 
hackers, and they warned that Homeland Security would be undergoing 
scrutiny next.

Criticism of that department's cybersecurity efforts from Congress and 
federal auditors is hardly new. Some would argue the department has 
shown minor signs of improvement this year since it pulled up its 
federal information security "grade" from an "F" to a "D."

Even so, Government Accountability Office auditors at Wednesday's 
hearing said various components of Homeland Security still aren't doing 
enough to limit access to their systems, authenticate and identify 
users, encrypt sensitive data and keep logs of user activity.

The GAO is preparing to release a report based on a yearlong 
investigation that it says documents "pervasive" security flaws in 
Homeland Security's US-VISIT program, which is designed to verify the 
identity of foreigners through fingerprint scans and is currently being 
used at several U.S. ports of entry.

Keith Rhodes, one of the report's authors, said the GAO found that 
US-VISIT is riddled with problems "across the board," which, left 
uncorrected, could put sensitive personal information at risk. The flaws 
are mostly due to "bad configurations" that could be fixed both easily 
and cheaply, he said. But because of the deficiencies, there's no way of 
knowing whether the database associated with the computer systems has 
already been hacked, he said.

"I did not see controls in place that would prevent (hacking), I did not 
see defensive perimeters, and I did not see detections systems in place 
that would let you know whether it had or had not" been hacked, Rhodes 
told the committee.

Charbo said he and department officials were still reviewing the draft 
version of that report but were prepared to address the weaknesses by 
year's end.

On a broader level, Charbo said he realizes the agency has improvements 
to make but urged the politicians not to overlook what he called 
"significant progress" during the past few years. For instance, it has 
"remediated" 7,000 weaknesses identified by auditors and has certified 
that 95 percent of its systems have appropriate controls in 
place--compared with only 26 percent in October 2005.

Others questioned whether the department has been dedicating enough of 
its overall tech budget to security. According to Homeland Security, it 
spent $12.5 million in 2004, $17.5 million in 2005, and $15 million in 
2006 and 2007. Charbo justified those expenditures by saying they 
reflected "our strategic security plan."

The lone Republican present at the hearing, subcommittee co-chairman 
Michael McCaul (R-Texas), said he and others were considering 
introducing legislation that would force Homeland Security to come up 
with a "national strategic threat assessment" regarding U.S. 

"This has never been done, it's long overdue, and the nation needs this 
to protect it," he said, adding that he feared a devastating cyberattack 
could be worse than the "effects of a weapon of mass destruction."

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