NSA cybersecurity issues echo scathing Hill report

A New York Times story on NSA vulnerabilities bears a striking resemblance to a report by Republicans on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee detailing problems at other agencies.

broken lock

Like the more than 15 civilian agencies lambasted for poor cybersecurity practices in a Feb. 4 Senate committee minority report, it appears the National Security Agency is also guilty of failing to promptly upgrade its IT software and security measures.

A Feb. 8 article in the New York Times quotes intelligence officials who claim that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden programmed "web crawler" software to mine data in NSA systems in an automated fashion while he was on the clock. He ultimately copied 1.7 million files.

NSA investigators told the Times that Snowden almost certainly would have been caught had he worked at NSA's headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., where systems had been updated to detect when large volumes of data were accessed and downloaded.

But because he worked at NSA outposts in Hawaii that had not received upgraded security measures -- first at an underground Dell facility in Oahu and later at an office of contractor Booz Allen Hamilton -- Snowden was able to access what NSA Deputy Director Rick Ledgett called "the keys to the kingdom."

"Some place had to be last" to get the security upgrade, an intelligence official told the Times.

The Times article bears a striking resemblance to a February report by Republicans on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that documents a multitude of IT security gaffes. That compilation of information from inspector general reports, the Office of Management and Budget, and other sources shows how scores of agencies regularly failed to secure servers, install routine software patches or updates, or fix known vulnerabilities. Consequently, hackers accessed, stole and took over networks at more than 15 agencies, according to the report, which cited only incidents that were made public.

The report reads like a greatest-hits album for the biggest IT failures in government. Among the worst:

  • Hackers stole personal information on 100,000 people from Energy Department networks in July 2013 because the agency had failed to upgrade a known weakness in its systems. The department's inspector general determined that DOE officials had purchased the upgrade but hadn't gotten around to installing it yet.
  • The Department of Homeland Security -- charged with overseeing security in unclassified federal networks -- is behind many agencies in IT security. Hundreds of vulnerabilities were found in systems belonging to DHS' cyber team, including passwords openly visible on desks, websites containing vulnerabilities, outdated antivirus software on computers that controlled physical access to DHS facilities, failure to implement routine Microsoft software updates, weak or default passwords, and a host of other issues.

Despite those issues, DHS was tied for first among federal agencies for compliance with the Federal Information Security Management Act in the report OMB submitted to Congress last March. DHS, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the General Services Administration all scored 99 percent.

However, NRC was roasted in the Senate committee's report for storing sensitive cybersecurity details for nuclear plants on an unprotected shared drive. The report claims that NRC employees share a lack of confidence in the IT department -- not a good omen for the agency in charge of storing highly sensitive nuclear-related data. As of 2012, the agency's IG said, officials still had not made good on corrective efforts.

The report highlights a slew of other major IT cybersecurity bungles by civilian, defense and military agencies that spent more than $80 billion on IT last year. With the now-public knowledge that NSA didn't update IT security for at least one of its facilities, it appears the intelligence community is not immune to cybersecurity issues either.

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