Report cards often hide the true picture

Congress, OMB tackle IT security reporting

A Transportation Department official startled lawmakers last week when he said DOT had progressed from a D-plus to an A-minus on its information security report card this year despite what he considered significant security deficiencies in the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control en route computer systems.

During a morning of testimony before the House Government Reform Committee, lawmakers heard from federal officials who had proposals for correcting inconsistencies in the information security report cards. Witnesses said the grades are suspect when the Homeland Security Department can make significant information security improvements and still get an F, for example, and DOT can earn an A-minus and be at risk of having a serious computer security incident.

Theodore Alves, assistant inspector general for financial and information technology audits at DOT, said he could discuss only two of the security deficiencies publicly because of their sensitive nature. FAA officials had certified that the en route systems had adequate security based only on reviews of systems in the computer laboratory at the FAA's Technical Center. But those systems, although similar, are not identical to the ones in the 20 en route centers the FAA operates, he said.

Alves testified that FAA officials have not addressed that security deficiency to his satisfaction. He also said the agency has not developed a realistic contingency plan to restore essential air service in the event of a prolonged service disruption at the en route centers.

"Notwithstanding recent progress, DOT still faces many challenges to secure its computer systems," he said.

Alves was one of several witnesses who said he favors having a consistent set of auditing standards for federal IGs, who play a major role in agencies' security evaluations. The evaluations are required under the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002, which the Office of Management and Budget administers.

At the same hearing, DHS officials tried to reassure committee members that their second F security grade in two years does not give an accurate picture of information security at the 2-year-old department.

Steve Cooper, DHS' chief information officer, said the department has lost 30 out of 100 points each year for not keeping a complete inventory of its 3,600 systems and for not having secure configuration controls on computers that DHS is quickly phasing out.

He also complained to lawmakers that the security scoring system allows only four points for what he thinks is a high-value activity — providing security and awareness training for almost all DHS employees and contractors.

But Cooper, who has announced he is leaving his job this month, said the department has procedures in place that will enable it to earn a respectable grade by 2006. "We are absolutely on track to succeed," he said.

OMB officials, who develop the security questionnaire on which agencies’ information security grades are based, are willing to explore changes in the portion of the evaluation that asks whether agencies have a complete inventory of their major IT systems, said Karen Evans, OMB's administrator for e-government and IT, who also spoke at the hearing.

For the most part, however, Evans said OMB officials have no plans for major revisions to their information security policy guidance in 2005. "FISMA is working," she said.

Suggestions for better report cards

House Government Reform Committee members heard various proposals last week for improving information security reviews and correcting inconsistencies among federal report cards.

Among the suggestions:

  • Create a set of security auditing standards similar to those used in financial audits.
  • Include more metrics in reporting requirements.
  • Give agencies more time to complete security reviews.
  • Give more points for security awareness and training.

— Florence Olsen

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