GAO: SEC needs stronger IT security for market data

Information security weaknesses persist at the Securities and Exchange Commission because it has not put in place all the critical elements of its agencywide information technology security program.

SEC relies heavily on computerized systems to oversee securities markets and that requires integrating security controls in a layered approach to protect financial and sensitive data, the Government Accountability Office said.

For example, SEC had not completed security plans for some enterprise database applications, had not sufficiently documented and monitored IT security training for key personnel, and was not comprehensive in its security tests and evaluations of enterprise database applications.

As a result, SEC’s financial information is “at increased risk of unauthorized disclosure, modification or destruction, and its management decisions may be based on unreliable or inaccurate information,” GAO said in a report released March 3. The authors were Gregory Wilshusen, director of GAO’s information security issues, and Nabajyoti Barkakati, GAO’s acting chief technologist.

SEC has made significant progress in correcting eight of the 20 previously reported security control weaknesses. For example, the agency has documented authorizations for software modifications, developed a program for monitoring access activities to its computer network and tested the effectiveness of controls for its general ledger accounting system. SEC also has developed remedial action plans to reduce identified weaknesses in its systems and developed a mechanism to track the progress of actions to correct deficiencies. A key reason SEC has achieved progress is that senior management is actively involved, GAO said.

Still, SEC workstations are susceptible to malicious code attacks and its operations center has not properly implemented perimeter security, GAO said.

Among GAO’s recommendations: SEC should make sure that its plans are complete and comprehensive, including documenting system interconnection and information-sharing agreements with other systems; define system boundaries; identify common security controls; and provide up-to-date information that reflects changes and vulnerabilities discovered based on the applications’ risk assessment and security evaluations.

Since the audit concluded in September, SEC has made further progress in resolving some of the outstanding issues and strengthening its IT security, said SEC Chairman Christopher Cox. The agency established additional processes, tools and techniques to continuously monitor for vulnerabilities in its general support systems and critical applications; implemented patches and configuration changes identified for key applications and databases; and improved user access reporting by monitoring active user accounts and ensured that separated employees no longer have access, he said.

“It is imperative that we hold ourselves to high standards in this area, and improving our controls has been and continues to be an important strategic priority,” Cox said.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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