By Mary Mosquera
August 15, 2007
Taxpayers personal information is put at risk because Internal Revenue
Service managers and employees are not adhering to established security
policies and procedures, said the Treasury Inspector General for Tax
Administration (TIGTA) . Nevertheless, the IRS has taken some steps
to improve security, it added.
For the IRS to make greater strides in improving computer security and
protecting personally identifiable information, managers and employees
must be aware of the security risks inherent to their positions and
consider the security implications of their day-to-day activities.
It is clear that some IRS executives are not holding managers and
employees accountable for carrying out their responsibilities and are
not ensuring managers and employees are aware of the security risks
associated with their positions, said Michael Phillips, deputy inspector
general for audit, in the report released Aug. 14.
Executives must clearly communicate expectations that procedures will be
followed and take the appropriate actions when they are not, the report
IRS lost at least 490 computers with sensitive data in 387 incidents
between 2003 and 2006. Of those, TIGTA determined that 176 incidents
involved taxpayer data. Of the remaining 211 incidents, TIGTA found
sufficient details in 126 incidents to determine that personal
information for at least 2,359 individuals was involved. The auditors
were unable to identify the nature of the data loss and the identity of
taxpayers for the other 85 incidents because of a lack of detail in the
incident write-ups. Employee negligence contributed to some of the
In samples from IRS offices, employees were disregarding e-mail policy
and not encrypting personally identifiable information on their laptop
computers. Managers also did not pull employees' access to systems they
no longer needed when they transferred to other offices, received new
responsibilities or left the IRS, TIGTA found.
Some security employees did not follow security procedures, which left
the IRS network vulnerable to insider threats. For example, they did not
change blank passwords to system administrator accounts on database
applications or default log-ons and passwords used for installing
applications. They also did not update patches or remove unneeded
services. The IRS and its contractors were not integrating security
controls into its modernized systems.
The IRS stores the personal data of 130 million taxpayers and their
dependents. It is a challenge for the agency to protect personally
identifiable information from unauthorized disclosure not only because
of the volume of the data but also because of the complexity of changing
technology and the number of computer systems the IRS operates. The
agency processes and maintains personally identifiable information on
more than 240 systems and 1,500 databases. Most of its 100,000 employees
and contractors have access to at least some of this data daily.
Additionally, some IRS employees must take personally identifiable
information outside their offices on laptop computers to carry out their
audit and collection responsibilities.
The IRS said it continues to update its systems, processes and training
for employees who have access to sensitive information so they will be
aware of the steps they must take to prevent taxpayer data from being
We continue with vigilance to address the challenges and risks
associated with protecting taxpayers [personally identifiable
information] processed and maintained on our systems, said Daniel Galik,
IRS associate chief information officer for cybersecurity, in a response
letter to TIGTA July 20.
Among the actions it has taken, the IRS installed full-disk encryption
on its entire inventory of 52,511 laptop computers. It also has
established a steering committee led by the agencys security officer to
guide security services and privacy plans with representatives from
across all IRS business units. IRS continues to enhance its security
training for employees and contractors and deliver periodic security
reminders via e-mail. It will distribute a video on the importance of
personally identifiable information in late summer.
The IRS has implemented a defense-in-depth security approach with
upgraded firewalls and intrusion-detection devices while maintaining a
round-the-clock cybersecurity incident response center.
Last year, the agency certified and accredited 95 percent of its systems
under the Federal Information Security Management Act, appointed a chief
privacy officer and established an identity theft program office.
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