Homeland Security Department's Own IT Security Found Lacking - InformationWeek

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Homeland Security Department's Own IT Security Found Lacking

GAO report says risk assessment, security planning, security-tools evaluation, and systems inventory processes don't measure up.

The Homeland Security Department's ability to protect its own data and IT systems leaves much to be desired, according to a report released Monday by the Government Accountability Office, Congress's investigative arm. Although the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002, or FISMA, requires each government agency to create a departmentwide information-security program, Homeland Security has fallen behind in its risk assessment, security planning, security-tools evaluation, and systems inventory.

It's not clear how vulnerable Homeland Security's IT systems and data are to cyberattacks, but the GAO report points out that the department's inability to keep up with IT security policy outlined in FISMA isn't the only problem. The GAO report, dated June 17, also states that Homeland Security isn't properly using technology to help secure its IT systems. In particular, the department's Trusted Agent FISMA enterprise-management software tool is lacking in several areas, including its ability to verify data, provide an audit trail, report system weaknesses, and link to updated plans of action and milestones.

"Until DHS addresses these weaknesses and fully implements a comprehensive, departmentwide information-security program, its ability to protect the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of its information and information systems will be limited," says the report, which was compiled by GAO director of information-security issues Gregory Wilshusen at the request of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., ranking minority member of the Senate's Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

"How can the Department possibly protect the nation's critical cyber-structure if it cannot keep its own house in order?" Lieberman said in a prepared statement. "More than two years after the Department was formed, it should have a better grasp on protecting its own systems and information. I encourage it to follow the GAO's recommendations to improve its cyber security expeditiously."

The Trusted Agent FISMA system was designed and implemented by Homeland Security Chief Information Security Officer Robert West to manage the collection and reporting of information relevant to the department's information security practices and controls. However, "unless the data being collected and tracked from the components are reliable, the CISO has no assurance that the components' metrics accurately reflect the status of their implementation of key information security activities," the report says.

The GAO report acknowledges that Homeland Security has made progress with its IT initiatives in a relatively short amount of time. The department was formally launched in March 2003 after absorbing about 209,000 civilian and military positions from 22 federal agencies and organizations. One of West's responses to the GAO report was that the department has made changes to Trusted Agent FISMA in order to improve its reliability. The department also claims that it will by Aug. 5 have a complete Homeland Security IT systems inventory.

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