IRS systems still vulnerable to cyber criminals

Government auditors told Congress that the IRS systems continue to show significant information security weaknesses.

Shutterstock image: breached lock.

Government auditors told Congress on April 12 that the Internal Revenue Service continues to face weaknesses when it comes to information security. Meanwhile, some lawmakers pushed for more funding for the IRS to help with its cybersecurity efforts and hiring more IT professionals.

"There were numerous weaknesses that we identified due to the inconsistent application of their information security programs across IRS," Gene L. Dodaro told the Senate Finance Committee regarding the most recent audit. The comptroller general and head of the Government Accountability Office noted some of the weaknesses include easily guessed passwords to get access to servers that support key systems at the IRS; users who were given system privileges beyond what their job responsibility requires; systems that remain decrypted  when encryption is called for; and software patches that are not being applied in a timely manner.

"These weaknesses were due in part to IRS's inconsistent implementation of its agency-wide security program, including not fully implementing prior GAO recommendations," the GAO noted in its most recent report. GAO made 45 new recommendations in this regard, in addition to the 49 existing ones.

The IRS spends $2.5 billion annually on IT across more than 20 major systems, but it is still dependent on a central data processing setup from the 1960s.

Around 724,000 tax accounts were reportedly affected in a June 2015 incident, where 'unauthorized third parties' gained access to the accounts using the 'Get Transcripts' application, which has since been suspended. A year later in March, they suspended their Identity Protection Personal Identification Number (IP PIN). This service allowed people to get the IP PIN by passing their authentication checks.

"We have a delicate balance to maintain here," IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said. "We need to keep the criminals out while letting the legitimate taxpayers in."

Koskinen said his agency is working on developing a better coordinated authentication framework to avoid some of the errors made in the past. He also stressed the need for reauthorization of streamlined critical pay authority, which has expired.

Recently, the director of cybersecurity operations at IRS left before his term ended, and Koskinen said there are 14 other positions in jeopardy because of the expired pay authority. It is "almost impossible," he said, to recruit and retain cyber talent without having that reauthorization to hire for certain key roles at base rates well above typical Senior Executive Service levels.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said that there wasn't a timetable for reauthorizing the critical pay authority for the IRS, but he did say the committee would look at legislation related to hiring and compensation.

"When it comes to blocking hackers, Congress has done next to nothing while the IRS loses its ability to hire experts who can keep taxpayer information safe," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), ranking member of the committee, said at the hearing. He voiced frustration with the 'Get Transcript' system vulnerabilities, but said critical pay authority is a "key part of the solution."

Some lawmakers, however, argued this may not be enough.

Congress continues to ask the IRS to do more with less by enacting deep and damaging cuts to the agency's budget," Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said. "I'm concerned that these successive budget cuts may be pennywise and pound foolish when it comes to ... the agency's ability to protect American taxpayers' information online." 

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