IG: Some at IRS still careless with taxpayer data

Taxpayers' personal information is put at risk because Internal Revenue Service managers and employees are not adhering to established security policies and procedures, said the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA). Nevertheless, the IRS has taken some steps to improve security, it added.

For the IRS to make greater strides in improving computer security and protecting personally identifiable information, managers and employees must be aware of the security risks inherent to their positions and consider the security implications of their day-to-day activities.

'It is clear that some IRS executives are not holding managers and employees accountable for carrying out their responsibilities and are not ensuring managers and employees are aware of the security risks associated with their positions,' said Michael Phillips, deputy inspector general for audit, in the report released Aug. 14.

Executives must clearly communicate expectations that procedures will be followed and take the appropriate actions when they are not, the report states.

IRS lost at least 490 computers with sensitive data in 387 incidents between 2003 and 2006. Of those, TIGTA determined that 176 incidents involved taxpayer data. Of the remaining 211 incidents, TIGTA found sufficient details in 126 incidents to determine that personal information for at least 2,359 individuals was involved. The auditors were unable to identify the nature of the data loss and the identity of taxpayers for the other 85 incidents because of a lack of detail in the incident write-ups. Employee negligence contributed to some of the losses.

In samples from IRS offices, employees were disregarding e-mail policy and not encrypting personally identifiable information on their laptop computers. Managers also did not pull employees' access to systems they no longer needed when they transferred to other offices, received new responsibilities or left the IRS, TIGTA found.

Some security employees did not follow security procedures, which left the IRS network vulnerable to insider threats. For example, they did not change blank passwords to system administrator accounts on database applications or default log-ons and passwords used for installing applications. They also did not update patches or remove unneeded services. The IRS and its contractors were not integrating security controls into its modernized systems.

The IRS stores the personal data of 130 million taxpayers and their dependents. It is a challenge for the agency to protect personally identifiable information from unauthorized disclosure not only because of the volume of the data but also because of the complexity of changing technology and the number of computer systems the IRS operates. The agency processes and maintains personally identifiable information on more than 240 systems and 1,500 databases. Most of its 100,000 employees and contractors have access to at least some of this data daily. Additionally, some IRS employees must take personally identifiable information outside their offices on laptop computers to carry out their audit and collection responsibilities.

The IRS said it continues to update its systems, processes and training for employees who have access to sensitive information so they will be aware of the steps they must take to prevent taxpayer data from being compromised.

'We continue with vigilance to address the challenges and risks associated with protecting taxpayers' [personally identifiable information] processed and maintained on our systems,' said Daniel Galik, IRS associate chief information officer for cybersecurity, in a response letter to TIGTA July 20.

Among the actions it has taken, the IRS installed full-disk encryption on its entire inventory of 52,511 laptop computers. It also has established a steering committee led by the agency's security officer to guide security services and privacy plans with representatives from across all IRS business units. IRS continues to enhance its security training for employees and contractors and deliver periodic security reminders via e-mail. It will distribute a video on the importance of personally identifiable information in late summer.

The IRS has implemented a 'defense-in-depth' security approach with upgraded firewalls and intrusion-detection devices while maintaining a round-the-clock cybersecurity incident response center.

Last year, the agency certified and accredited 95 percent of its systems under the Federal Information Security Management Act, appointed a chief privacy officer and established an identity theft program office.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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