Data breach response leaves something to be desired

The number of federal agency data breaches involving personally identifiable information increased from 10,481 in 2009 to 25,566 in 2013.

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The number of government data breaches involving personal identifiable information has more than doubled since 2009, and the Government Accountability Office wants federal agencies to adhere more closely to existing security protocols to better protect people’s data.

An April 2 GAO report found that the number of data breaches involving information such as taxpayer data, census data, Social Security information and patient health information have increased from 10,481 in 2009 to 25,566 in 2013, as reported to U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team.

GAO found that many agencies have struggled to address the eight required components of an information security program, specifically in implementing security controls.

“The loss or unauthorized disclosure or alteration of the information residing on federal systems, which can include PII, can lead to serious consequences and substantial harm to individuals and the nation,” the report reads. “Thus it is critical that federal agencies protect their systems and the information on them and respond to data breaches and cyber incidents when they occur.”

Of the seven agencies evaluated, the Internal Revenue Service was the only one to consistently document both an assigned risk level and how that level was determined for PII-related data breach incidents. Only the Army and IRS documented the number of affected people for each incident.

None of the seven agencies consistently offered credit monitoring to those affected by the incidents, nor did they document lessons learned from their responses to the breach.

The report details key guidelines for agencies to follow from the Office of Management and Budget and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to improve their information security posture.

Among these guidelines are management practices, which include establishing a data breach response team and training employees on roles and responsibilities for breach response. There are also operational practices, such as preparing reports on suspected data breaches and submitting them to appropriate internal and external entities, assessing the likely risk of harm and level of impact of a suspected breach, offering assistance to affected individuals and analyzing the agency’s breach response and identifying lessons learned.

Besides the Army and IRS, the other agencies GAO examined were the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

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