Government at high risk of economic espionage

With cyber theft and other crime on the rise, agencies must get aggressive in defense, according to the GAO.

An evolving range of cyber threats, techniques and dependencies are brewing a perfect storm for economic espionage, and will require an accelerated, multi-pronged approach, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

Better security through access management and data encryption, combined with risk management and strategic planning, are critical to defending U.S. public and private networks from an array of adversaries, including criminal groups, hackers, terrorists and insiders. But perhaps most important are key partnerships that coordinate agencies, companies and other stakeholders, according to the report.

“Cyberspace – where much business activity and the development of new ideas often take place – amplifies these threats by making it possible for malicious actors to quickly steal and transfer massive quantities of data while remaining anonymous and difficult to detect,” the report noted.

GAO designated federal information security as a government-wide high-risk area back in 1997, expanding that classification in 2003 to include critical infrastructure. The new report underscores the gravity of the threat and the importance of agencies following through with the hundreds of recommendations for protecting federal interests GAO has issued over the years.

According to the report, the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) – which receives computer security incident reports from government agencies, commercial enterprises, U.S. citizens, and international computer security incident response teams – fielded more than 100,000 incident reports in fiscal year 2011. More than half were phishing exploits; other types included viruses, Trojan horses, worms and logic bombs; malicious websites; policy violations; equipment theft or loss; suspicious network activity; attempted access; and social engineering.

The report also highlighted a number of alarming cyber crimes in the private sector in recent years, including security breaches that resulted in hundreds of millions of people’s sensitive data and billions of dollars in loss of intellectual property.

GAO recommended that agencies and companies alike employ a full suite of defenses: technological access controls including boundary protection, authentication and authorization; system integrity methods like antivirus software; cryptography; configuration management and assurance.

The report also called for better cybersecurity framework, risk assessments and especially collaboration, highlighting interagency efforts in Congress and the White House for protecting intellectual property.

“To address this threat, federal agencies have a key role to play in law enforcement, deterrence and information sharing,” the report noted. “Ensuring effective coordination will be critical for better protecting the economic security of America’s businesses.”

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