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FEMA Cybersecurity Fix Could Take Years

Auditors find dozens of security problems with the Federal Emergency Management Agency's financial systems.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has serious security problems with its financial management systems that will likely take several years to fix, according to an audit by accounting firm KPMG done on behalf of Department of Homeland Security's inspector general.

KPMG's audit uncovered dozens of problems -- 58 in all -- that it says "collectively limit FEMA's ability to ensure critical financial and operational data were maintained in such a manner to ensure confidentiality, integrity, and availability."

KPMG did note that FEMA took steps during fiscal 2009 to correct weaknesses found a year earlier, such as backing up its financial system, improving user account management for its financial systems, and improving documentation around the National Flood Insurance Program, which provides insurance assistance to citizens living in flood zones.

However, 22 of the problems KPMG found were holdovers from the previous year, and some of them seem to show a disregard for federal cybersecurity requirements.

For example, two of FEMA's financial systems, the Grants and Training Integrated Financial Management Information System and the Payment and Reporting System, were not certified and accredited before moving into production and were operating without authorization. They had no cybersecurity pros assigned to them, and weren't included in FEMA's systems inventory.

More broadly, KPMG found that systems were developed without proper oversight and direction to contractors; development and approval of some required project documentation; or continual involvement of FEMA's CIO. "Many of these deficiencies originate from policy and system development activities that did not incorporate strong security controls from the outset," the report says.

In addition, vulnerabilities found and corrective actions taken regarding the National Emergency Information System weren't reported and tracked, the certification and accreditation for FEMA's networks didn't include the LAN on which FEMA's primary financial apps reside, and the certification and accreditation for parts of a flood insurance system was expired.

FEMA also had access control problems. KPMG found password, patch management, and security configuration problems on servers supporting financial and support systems. User account control was another problem, as accounts weren't reviewed for appropriateness, weren't disabled or removed promptly after employees were fired, and weren't documented properly upon being handed out. Strong passwords weren't enforced on several systems, including access to FEMA's LAN.

"The deficiencies identified in FEMA's access controls increase the risk that employees and contractors may have access to a system that is outside the realm of their job responsibilities or that a separated individual could use the account to alter the data contained within the application or database without being detected," the report says.

Though she was singled out by the report, FEMA CIO Jean Etzel concurred with all of KPMG's recommendations. "The CIO is resolute in directing these audit recommendations to be effectively implemented in a timely manner," she wrote, noting that a governance board would hold weekly status meetings to review progress toward that goal.

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