Agencies urged to focus first on policies to protect data

Several agencies faced with personal data leaks seek solutions

The ongoing problems that agencies have with leaking personally identifiable information highlight privacy concerns about mobile data.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) detailed the latest such leak at the Information Technology Association of America’s recent workshop: Information Security in the Federal Enterprise. An Army laptop computer containing personal information about 4,600 ROTC scholarship applicants is missing, Davis said.

The Office of Management and Budget issued a memo July 12 asking federal agencies to report all such losses — confirmed or suspected — within an hour of the discovery.

“High-level officials are asking for answers,” said Andy Purdy, former acting director of the National Cyber Security Division at the Homeland Security Department.

Experts and government chief information security officers at the workshop agreed that successfully combating leaks must start at the policy level.

Too many federal information systems process personal information unnecessarily, said Pat Howard, chief information security officer at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Agencies must rigorously enforce their policies to ensure that personal data isn’t redundantly copied or unprotected, he said.

Keith Johnson, vice president of the public sector at Liquid Machines, said policies must also control individual access to such information, he added.

“Policies should include things like who has access and what rights those individuals should have with that access,” he said. They should state how and to whom people can send that information.

Johnson said he didn’t think that establishing a new oversight organization would solve the data leakage problem.

“We don’t need additional organization inside an [agency],” he said. But he advocated better auditing and reporting and stricter penalties for data leaks to encourage agencies to police themselves. He also recommended that agencies train employees to avoid accidentally releasing personal information.

Even when being careful, agencies cannot prevent data leaks through better employee training alone. Purdy said hackers who penetrate systems can use personal information to access other systems in the network.

“We see external malicious actors intruding into systems both private and government and then migrating as if they’re within those systems,” Purdy said. Using information technology to prevent such intrusions would be the best way to avoid those situations, he said.

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