Agencies must toughen rules to protect sensitive information, GAO says

Federal officials need to address nondisclosure agreements and the process for notifying officials when information is improperly disclosed or misused

Three major federal departments that work closely with sensitive information lack strong safeguards to protect that information, which contractors are accessing while working, according to a report released today.

The Defense, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services departments have supplemented the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) with provisions to protect information. However, the additional provisions in DOD’s and HHS’ rules don’t go far enough to protect sensitive information, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Also, each department's supplemental FAR guidance does not specify a contractor’s responsibility to notify officials promptly in case of an unauthorized disclosure or misuse of sensitive information.

Looking more broadly, GAO found two important areas that the FAR, the governmentwide rulebook on federal contracting, does not deal with. Regulations don’t deal with the use of nondisclosure agreements as a condition of contractors’ access to information nor do they set a clear process for notifying federal officials quickly about an unauthorized disclosure.

In the report, GAO officials recommend that the FAR Council address those issues on a governmentwide basis instead of letting individual agencies write their own provisions.

Today’s federal government depends on the private sector to support management and administrative work. In performing agency tasks, contractors often require access to sensitive information that must be protected from disclosure or misuse.

DHS officials generally agreed with GAO’s report but disagreed about the safeguards in one of the contracts GAO auditors reviewed. The Office of Federal Procurement Policy agreed with the report, and officials at DOD and HHS did not have an opinion.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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