Oversight

GAO says agency CISO roles are too fuzzy and often undermined

Shutterstock image (by fotogestoeber): virus infection spreading out in a network.

Chief information security officers are responsible for making sure their organizations' information security programs are robust and compliant with the Federal Information Security Modernization Act (FISMA). Yet many CISOs said their roles are not fully defined and their oversight authority is being challenged, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Sept. 15.

Auditors said 13 of the 24 agencies they evaluated had not fully defined the management roles of their CISOs in accordance with federal requirements. The most commonly undefined responsibilities were those for ensuring security policies were in place, instituting contingency plans in the event of an IT disruption and overseeing contractor systems.

Additionally, at least half of the CISOs said their roles were challenged to either a "moderate" or "large" extent in six areas: competing priorities between operations and security, coordination with component organizations, coordination with other offices, limited access to information from contractors, oversight of indirect reports and oversight of IT contractors.

Agencies' organizational hierarchy and limited access to information from component organizations were also cited as challenges to authority. CISOs reported resource restrictions and workforce factors -- including hiring and retaining skilled personnel -- as additional challenges.

GAO also found that the Office of Management and Budget has not followed through on its FISMA mandate to issue guidance outlining how agencies should ensure that CISOs fulfill their oversight responsibilities. As a result, agencies lack clarity on how to delegate appropriate authority to their CISOs, and it is more difficult to hold agency personnel accountable for complying with federal regulations, the report states.

In response, OMB officials said they have clarified the CISO's role under the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act and other guidance. However, auditors said none of the guidelines cited by OMB address how agencies become FISMA-compliant or indicate that OMB is evaluating CISOs' authority.

GAO made 33 recommendations to 13 agencies to fully define the role of information security officers in accordance with FISMA regulations. Twelve of the agencies concurred, while the Defense Department partially agreed with two recommendations and disputed another regarding the role of its senior information security officer.

DOD officials said they have fully defined that role in terms of information security policies; incident detection, response and reporting; and oversight of contractor-operated information systems.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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