By Jill R. Aitoro
February 15, 2008
Federal agencies continue to struggle with information security,
according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.
Weak access controls, network device configuration, and management
procedures leave systems vulnerable to malicious attacks and data at
risk of exposure.
The report (GAO-08-496) , which GAO presented to Congress during a
hearing Thursday, summarized agency progress in performing key control
activities, the effectiveness of information security efforts, and
opportunities to strengthen security, based upon prior audits, federal
policies, and inspectors general reports.
"Significant weaknesses continue to threaten the confidentiality,
integrity, and availability of critical information and information
systems used to support the operations, assets and personnel of federal
agencies," the report said. In their fiscal 2007 performance and
accountability reports, 20 of 24 major agencies indicated that
inadequate information security controls were either a significant
deficiency or a material weakness. GAO audits returned similar findings
for financial and non-financial systems.
Such weaknesses resulted in a number of reported breaches by agencies,
and an increase in security incidents reported to the U.S. Computer
Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) from 3,634 in fiscal 2005 to 13,029
in fiscal 2007.
GAO organized the most significant information security weaknesses
facing agencies into five categories: access controls that ensure only
authorized users can view and alter data; software configuration
management controls; separation of duties, which offers checks and
balances over users' network activities; continuity of operations
planning to minimize risk of system outages in emergencies, and
agencywide information security programs that meet the requirements of
the 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act by properly
assessing risk and defining policies for preventing data breaches.
In the area of access controls, GAO found that 19 of 24 major agencies
reported weaknesses, including failure to identify and authenticate
users, enforce measures to ensure access is appropriate, encrypt
sensitive data on networks and mobile devices, and monitor network
GAO pointed to failure to implement security programs as a primary cause
of information security weaknesses. In one case, an agency assessed its
security risk without any inventory of interconnections between systems.
In another, an agency overlooked a number of vulnerabilities that GAO
later identified. Program guidelines and testing are often insufficient
or out of date, and training of employees on protocols for ensuring
information security lacking, auditors found.
Some progress in information security has been made. According to the
Bush administration's proposed fiscal 2009 budget, the percentage of
certified and accredited systems rose from 88 percent to 92 percent in
2007, and testing of security controls increased from 88 percent to 95
percent of systems. Contingency plan testing increased from 77 percent
to 86 percent, and 76 percent of agencies had an effective process in
place for identifying and correcting weaknesses using management
"The government has made progress in writing reports, but no progress in
improving the [aspects of] security that matter -- keeping the wrong
people out," said Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS
Institute, a nonprofit cybersecurity research organization in Bethesda,
Md. Paller also testified at the hearing, arguing that FISMA
requirements laid out by the National Institute of Standards and
Technology need to be prioritized.
Currently, agencies receive a list of standards required for FISMA
compliance, and are scored according to the percentage met. "When you
have children, there will be a time where you want them to do homework
along with 10 other things," Paller said. "If you score them on the
percentage of what they complete, and the homework is hard, they'll do
all the other stuff that matters a whole lot less because it's easy."
Another way to improve information security in the federal government is
to have vendors "bake it in with every procurement," Paller said. He
pointed to a mandate from the Office of Management and Budget requiring
agencies that run, or plan to run, Windows XP or Vista to adopt a
specific security configuration. The guidelines include recommended
language for use in bids for technology to ensure contractors
incorporate the proper security configurations with procured systems.
"It's brilliant," Paller said. "It's the best thing at a high level
going on in government to promote information security."
Subscribe to InfoSec News