Backsliding on cybersecurity?

The recent Government Accountability Office’s report indicates that government seems to be backsliding on many of its commitments to IT security.

The annual rundown of agencies’ implementation of Federal Information Security Management Act is greeted as a relatively humdrum affair these days. Nevertheless, it gives a good overview of the state of government security and, particularly in these days of hair-raising breaches, should be treated with more respect.

With the proviso that it doesn’t provide a granular view of agency security — most agencies would claim they have good security somewhere in the enterprise — the Government Accountability Office’s report makes for interesting reading. A little depressing also, in the sense that government seems to be backsliding on many of its commitments.

Upfront, the GAO talks about the “persistent weaknesses” at the 24 federal agencies it surveyed , illustrating the challenges they face in applying effective information security policies and practices. In some cases, such as systems configuration management and overall security management, there was a notable improvement in agencies’ overall performance.

However, the GAO’s own work and that of agency inspectors general “highlight information security control deficiencies at agencies that expose information and information systems supporting federal operations and assets to elevated risk of unauthorized use disclosure, modification and disruption,” the GAO said.

Most disappointing of all, perhaps, was the slide in the amount of security awareness training the agencies are providing their employees. A workforce well educated in what’s needed for good security is touted by all sides as a backbone requirement for overall cybersecurity, and the lack of such knowledge is blamed for a spate of “bad cyber hygiene” that has enabled successful phishing attacks on  government systems.

For fiscal year 2014, GAO reported, fewer agencies than in previous years said at least 90 percent of their users had received such awareness training. Perhaps the most worrying item was the fact that, according to the Office of Management and Budget, the 24 agencies surveyed had provided training for just 80 percent of their personnel who have significant security responsibilities, versus 92 percent in fiscal 2013.

It’s not as if government is oblivious to the need for security. Overall it spent $12.7 billion in fiscal 2014 on cybersecurity, the GAO said, and while that’s not as much as in some years past, it was still a big jump from the $10.3 billion of fiscal 2013.

Even that doesn’t tell the whole story, however. In the area of “shaping the cybersecurity environment” — which includes building a strong information security workforce and supporting broader IT security efforts — agencies were all over the place, with some spending significant amounts of their total on this and others almost nothing.

Except for the Defense Department. Of the nearly $9 billion total it spent on security in fiscal 2014, more than $5 billion went to shaping the environment. Even the Department of Homeland Security was relatively light in this area, and only the much smaller National Science Foundation spent relatively more on the environment than the DOD.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that the DOD seems to be taking the lead in many areas of security implementation, not least when it comes to shaping its environment. Officials have recently talked about “drawing a line in the sand” about users who don’t practice good cyber hygiene and have threatened to throw people off DOD networks if they don’t improve.

Another way DOD is trying to reduce the threat from insiders is by cutting the number of people in the agency who can access classified information. Some 100,000 were dropped from these rolls in the first six month of fiscal 2015. That still leaves 3.8 million with access, though it’s down 17 percent from just two years ago.

That’s apparently at least partly in response to the White House National Insider Threat Policy launched in 2012 after the WikiLeaks affair. Since then, however, it’s been broadly acknowledged that security is also at least equally in danger from ignorant insiders who unknowingly give network access to attackers, simply because they don’t understand the implications of clicking on email attachments.  (A recent exercise by the U.S. Postal Service's Office of the Inspector General, which sent phishing emails to USPS personnel to test their response, found that 25 percent of employees clicked on the potentially dangerous link.)

And it only takes one errant click to give up the keys to the kingdom. In an increasingly connected world, even DOD won’t be safe, despite all its outlays, if just one of its partner organizations has a lesser focus on education and awareness.

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