01:45 PM

DHS Immigration System Vulnerable To Insider Threats

An Inspector General report finds that a long-delayed Homeland Security project has not done enough to mitigate risks from current or former employees, contractors, or business partners.

Inside DHS' Classified Cyber-Coordination Headquarters
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Slideshow: Inside DHS' Classified Cyber-Coordination Headquarters

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) has criticized the security of a long-delayed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) system for immigration processing within the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS), warning that it could be vulnerable to insider threats.

The OIG enlisted a third-party team from the software engineering institute at Carnegie Mellon University to evaluate safeguards against insider threats for several systems at USCIS, one of which is called Transformation, according to a new report.

Transformation is a multimillion-dollar business-processing reengineering effort meant to automate the paperwork for immigration processes to improve customer service, workflow automation, and fraud detection, as well as deal with issues of national security, according to the report. It's been criticized by lawmakers for what seem to be endless delays that have caused work on it to be 10 years behind schedule.

Nonetheless, USCIS is relying heavily on Transformation to correct many of the problems resulting from legacy systems, according to the report, which makes the new system's ultimate effectiveness critical to the agency's immigration-processing workflow.

The Carnegie Mellon team found the Transformation project a "massive undertaking" with a "very detailed project plan," according to the report. However, protection against insider threats seems to be missing from that plan and is something the USCIS should implement before completing the project.

"Risk management is within the scope of Transformation, but only as it pertains to automated risk scoring of applicants and to workflow management to optimize adjudicator workload," according to the report. "USCIS should incorporate comprehensive insider threat risk mitigation requirements into the Transformation effort."

The OIG defines insiders to be current or former employees, contractors, or business partners who have or had authorized access to their organization's system and networks and are familiar enough with networks and policies to exploit knowledge for nefarious purposes.

An insider threat was at the center of a major controversy for the federal government last year when a military insider allegedly leaked confidential cables about the war in Afghanistan to Wikileaks, sparking an international incident. Since then, the feds have been more mindful of such breaches from inside and are working harder to prevent them.

The research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), even has plans to develop technology to determine ahead of time when soldiers or other government insiders may become a threat to themselves or others through a program called the Anomaly Detection at Multiple Scales (ADAMS) program.

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