Why aren't agencies listening to GAO, IGs on FISMA?


An oversight report found that agencies are ignoring hundreds of IG and GAO security recommendations.

While federal agencies are generally doing a good job implementing standards set down by the Federal Information Security Management Act, they're falling short when it comes to evaluating whether and how their compliance is leading to improved cybersecurity, according to a Sept. 28 Government Accountability Office report. Agencies are also not implementing suggestions from oversight offices.

In 2016, agencies reported a combined 30,899 information security incidents, less than half the number reported the previous year. GAO credits the decline to changes in federal reporting guidelines that exclude low-level scans and probes' failed attempts at gaining access as reportable incidents.

There is a wide disparity among agencies when it comes to budget and spending on information security. Of the 23 agencies evaluated by GAO, total funds dedicated to IT security-related activities in 2016 ranged between $3 million and $1.3 billion.

One former federal agency CIO speaking on background said that there is a "huge divide" in information security effectiveness between the haves and have-nots in federal government.

"There are departments and agencies that do [information security] very well, and there are organizations that are just bare-boning it to get by," said the official.

Another former top federal IT political appointee said that the government has enough tools under FISMA and existing authorities to be more effective, but lamented that a lack of enforcement mechanisms at civilian agencies leave the hands of most CIOs tied.

If a federal CIO "sends out a note signed by the director of management and budget with an OMB directive, for some folks out there it's merely treated as a suggestion," the official said.

Contractors also found themselves in the crosshairs, as the report found at least 56 specific vulnerabilities in 2016 related to contractor system reviews at 20 of the 24 CFO Act agencies.

While technology vulnerabilities often play a starring role in most cybersecurity discussions, there are increasing signs that poor cyber hygiene on the part of federal employees is becoming a major concern for IT leaders.

In September, a joint survey by Grant Thornton and the Professional Services Council found that outside of updating the government's outdated network infrastructure, the security threats that most worried federal IT managers were all human related: basic cybersecurity errors caused by federal employees, malware and phishing attacks.

Insider threats also registered in the top 10 of the survey. One potential incident related in the GAO report took place in September 2016, when the Treasury Department discovered one of its former employees had downloaded large caches of files onto two thumb drives shortly before leaving the job. The department was never able to retrieve the drives, and only discovered the actions following the implementation of a new policy restricting the use of removable media devices after the employee left.

Ultimately the GAO decided not to make any new recommendations to specific agency vulnerabilities, largely because the GAO and various inspector generals have already made "hundreds of recommendations" to improve departmental practices that have yet to be implemented.

"Until agencies correct longstanding control deficiencies and address our and agency inspectors general's recommendations, federal IT systems will remain at increased and unnecessary risk of attack or compromise," the GAO authors wrote.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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