IG: Some at IRS still careless with taxpayer data

IG: Some at IRS still careless with taxpayer data
IG: Some at IRS still careless with taxpayer data 

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) [1]. 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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