IG dings DHS on internal cybersecurity

A Republican critic claims gaps in the department's defenses "would be obvious to a 13-year-old with a laptop."

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Although the Department of Homeland Security has made progress in protecting its IT operations from electronic harm, federal auditors said in a new report that DHS still lags in some key cybersecurity practices and technologies, including incident detection and analysis, identity management and contingency planning.

The report, issued Nov. 21 by the department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), showed a mixed bag of results in the implementing and maintaining uniform, effective electronic security measures.

For example, the OIG said that while DHS has adopted an effective new process to track its mission essential systems, which are vital to ensuring the continuity of essential operations during an emergency, it doesn't have a central repository to track and monitor information systems that reside in the public cloud.

It also said that while DHS's training office provides components with access to more than 4,000 IT training courses via Microsoft SharePoint, the department has not established or provided enterprise-wide training requirements for privileged users.

Praise and condemnation for the mixed performance fell along party lines on Capitol Hill.

Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the report's findings show "major gaps" in DHS cybersecurity "that would be obvious to a 13-year-old with a laptop. DHS doesn't use strong authentication. It relies on antiquated software that's full of holes. Its components don't report security incidents when they should. They don’t keep track of weaknesses when they're found and they don't fix them in time to make a difference."

Coburn said DHS should be held to the same cybersecurity standards as private sector critical infrastructure companies.

"The fact is, the federal government's classified and unclassified networks are dangerously insecure, putting at risk not only U.S. national security, but the nation's critical infrastructure and vast amounts of our citizen's personally identifiable information."

The committee’s Democratic chairman, Tom Carper of Delaware, emphasized the the flip side of the report, noting DHS's "considerable progress" in implementing Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) protections.

OIG's five recommendations

  1. Establish a process to ensure that baseline configuration settings are being implemented and maintained on all workstations and servers, including non-Windows platforms.
  2. Ensure that all operational information systems have current authorization to operate.
  3. Improve the Information Security Office's Plan of Action and Milestones, review process to ensure that all of these, including “top secret” systems, are being remediated in a timely fashion and in compliance with DHS guidance.
  4. Establish enterprise-wide security training requirements to ensure all privileged users receive necessary role-based specialized security training.
  5. Strengthen the department’s oversight on its top secret systems by performing critical control reviews on selected systems to ensure the required controls are implemented.

The report credited the department's efforts to address cybersecurity priorities under FISMA mandates, including implementing trusted Internet connections, continuous monitoring and strong authentication. However, even with those efforts, the report said, the agency still has significant holes in its information security plan.

DHS systems, OIG said, are being operated without authority to operate, plans of action and milestones aren't being created for all known security weaknesses and baseline security configuration settings aren't being implemented for all systems. Incident detection and analysis, specialized training, account and identity management and contingency planning also need improvement, it said. DHS still needs to consolidate all of its external connections and complete implementation of personal identity verification compliant logical access on its information systems and networks, the report concluded.

DHS has subsequently taken five steps recommended by the OIG to bolster its cyber defenses. For instance, the OIG recommended that DHS establish, implement and maintain baseline configuration on all workstations and servers in the department. DHS told the OIG that in fiscal 2013, 11 of 12 components used the approved baseline configuration settings. It said it will increase the rigor of configuration management in 2014 by expanding relevant scorecard metrics to include devices beyond Windows platforms. DHS said its fiscal 2014 Information Security Scorecard will employ continuous monitoring data feeds. The OIG also recommended DHS ensure all operational information systems have current authorization to operate, a recommendation with which DHS concurred.

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