Widespread security flaws expose sensitive public info

Hackers can access sensitive medical and financial information on individuals because of widespread security weaknesses in agency computer systems, officials told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee today.

Outside and internal auditors at the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs found security shortcomings in agency systems, leaving data vulnerable to exposure or manipulation, according to the General Accounting Office. Both agencies defended their security practices but also admitted that the audits uncovered security shortcomings they were not aware of.

The audit of SSA revealed security breaches involving passwords, unprotected modems, lax implementation of audit trails and the vulnerability of the e-mail systems, said Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee.

At the VA, there has been a "major failure" in general computer security management planning, said Harold F. Gracey Jr., acting assistant secretary for information and technology in the VA. "We clearly have weaknesses," he told the committee, but he also detailed several steps the VA has taken to correct the problem.

Significant information security weaknesses exist at all 24 federal agencies, and 17 agencies have deficiencies in their security planning and management, said Gene L. Dodaro, the assistant comptroller general at GAO. The most common weakness is poor control over access to sensitive data, Dodaro said.

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