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9/9/2010
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Federal Cyber Watchdog Bombs Cybersecurity Audit

Department of Homeland Security inspector general says US-CERT isn't properly patching and securing its systems or complying with policy.




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The United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), the federal agency tasked with compiling and disseminating information and technical assistance about cybersecurity incidents to both the government and public, doesn't have its own cybersecurity entirely in order, according to a review by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) auditors.

The review looked into US-CERT's four main IT systems, including the Mission Operating Environment (MOE), Einstein, the Homeland Security Information Network (the agency's portal), and the agency's public website. The MOE allows US-CERT personnel to exchange and access security incident data and system anomalies. Einstein includes intrusion detection and network flow monitoring systems mandated for use by federal agencies.

While the MOE server rooms require smartcards for access and are monitored by video, the DHS's inspector general warned that the MOE systems themselves suffered from hundreds of high-risk vulnerabilities. The inspector general used Tenable Network Security's Nessus vulnerability scanning software to discover a total of 540 vulnerabilities on MOE systems, including 202 that were deemed to be "high-risk," meaning that they "can compromise the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of sensitive data."

"MOE application and operating system vulnerabilities that are not mitigated could compromise the Einstein data accessed through the system," the report said. "These vulnerabilities could lead to arbitrary code execution, buffer overflow, escalation of privileges, and denial-of-service attacks."

The vulnerabilities, the report said, generally result from inadequate application patching, despite edicts from DHS and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to keep software patches up-to-date. The problems include vulnerabilities in Microsoft applications, Adobe Acrobat, and Sun Java running on both Windows and Red Hat Linux operating systems.

While auditors were carrying out their review, MOE application patches were being applied manually, rather than automatically, and because MOE consists of hundreds of machines, this process was arduous and patches weren't getting applied quickly or universally. This has since changed, as the National Cyber Security Division (the agency that operates US-CERT) recently deployed software management systems that can automatically patch software. NCSD has also patched the identified vulnerabilities.

The report found that, contrary to Federal Information Security Management Act requirements, NCSD hadn't updated the status of known security weaknesses as part of its cybersecurity plan. It also hadn't established adequate cybersecurity awareness or role-based cybersecurity training programs, as it hadn't identified required security courses and focus areas for system administrators and contractors and hadn't appointed a cybersecurity training coordinator.

In addition, NCSD's staff hadn't reviewed or approved FISMA-required certification and accreditation documentation and conducted only incomplete self-assessments of the agency's cybersecurity systems. It also wasn't complying with DHS policies for firewall testing and physical security of server rooms.

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