GAO: SEC's info security not up to snuff

Congressional investigators said the Securities and Exchange Commission is not doing a good job of strengthening the security of its information systems, leaving them vulnerable to illegal access or disruption.

In a new report released last week, Government Accountability Office investigators said SEC officials have addressed only eight of 51 weaknesses detailed in an earlier GAO report. Among the improvements, SEC officials replaced a publicly accessible workstation and changed control procedures for a major application.

“However, SEC did not effectively control remote access to its servers, establish controls over password composition and storage, or manage access to its systems and data,” the report states. “Further, the commission did not securely configure all its network devices and servers, nor did it implement auditing and monitoring mechanisms to detect and track security-relevant incidents.”

The problem is that SEC officials have not yet fully developed, documented and implemented a comprehensive information security program, the report states. The commission still needs to develop or document policies and procedures that assess risks, test and evaluate effectiveness of controls, monitor and report corrective action, and analyze security incidents, according to the report. The commission also needs to ensure that employees have the proper training, the report states.

GAO also found 15 security weaknesses in addition to the 43 that still need to be corrected. SEC officials have not implemented consistent and effective access controls over user accounts and passwords, among other problems, according to the report. The commission also needs to do a better job of addressing physical security challenges, software patch management processes, segregation of computer functions and application change controls, which ensure only authorized programs and modifications are implemented, the report states.

“These weaknesses increase the risk that financial and sensitive information will be inadequately protected against disclosure, modification, or loss, possibly without detection, and place SEC operations at risk of disruption,” the report states.

That’s not to say the SEC hasn’t made some improvements. It has increased the number of security employees, certified and accredited several major applications and established a backup data center, according to the report.

According to the GAO report, Christopher Cox, the SEC’s chairman, agreed with the findings and said the commission is taking steps to improve the security program.

In a March 24 letter to GAO, Cox wrote, for example, that 16 major applications have been certified and accredited, and the remaining four will be accredited during the spring. The commission is maintaining and tracking its “plans of action and milestones” through a new automated system, he added.

Cox wrote that GAO’s recommendations are appropriate and actionable and that the SEC will implement them before October, the end of fiscal 2006. Those actions include fixing specific weaknesses and implementing an agencywide information security program.

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