Risk
2/26/2008
01:49 PM
George V. Hulme
George V. Hulme
Commentary
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Surprise, Surprise. Federal Agencies Not Protecting The Information They Collect About You

There are many policies, mandates, and laws that govern personally identifiable and financial information for federal agencies. So just how many federal agencies are living up to their responsibilities?

There are many policies, mandates, and laws that govern personally identifiable and financial information for federal agencies. So just how many federal agencies are living up to their responsibilities?You guessed it: not many.

When it comes to maintaining the privacy of information government agencies collect about U.S. citizenry, there are two overarching laws. These are the Privacy Act of 1974 as well as the E-Government Act of 2002. Each of these laws mandate that federal agencies protect personal information.

Other laws and mandates that come into play, depending on the nature of the agency and the information stored, include the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002, aka FISMA -- which sets forth a good baseline for security policies; the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, aka HIPAA; as well as the California Database Breach Disclosure law, which is largely known as SB 1386,and now similar laws are in force in more than 40 other states.

You'd think federal agencies would have clearly heard the message: citizens want their personal information maintained securely and responsibly. And so does the legislature. If they've heard the message, they certainly haven't listened. If there's one area where the federal government could set an example, you'd think it would be in implementing solid IT security. But it hasn't set such an example.

That's why in 2006, and once again last year, the Office of Management and Budget recapped federal agency IT security and privacy responsibilities that should be followed.

Unfortunately, here are the findings from the latest Government Accountability Office report on the status of federal agencies when it comes to protecting your personal information:

Of 24 major agencies, 22 had developed policies requiring personally identifiable information to be encrypted on mobile computers and devices. Fifteen of the 24 agencies had policies to use a "time-out" function for remote access and mobile devices, requiring user re-authentication after 30 minutes of inactivity.

Fewer agencies (11) had established policies to log computer-readable data extracts from databases holding sensitive information and erase the data within 90 days after extraction. Several agencies indicated that they were researching technical solutions to address these issues.

At first blush, these results might not seem so bad. After all, 22 of 24 agencies have developed "polices requiring personally identifiable information to be encrypted on mobile computers and devices."

That's a start. But the devil is in the implementation and enforcement of polices. Anyone can set a policy requiring data be encrypted. Just as anyone can set a policy to live within a budget, lose weight, quit smoking, or start exercising. Follow-through is the tough part.

And that's the rub here, according to the GAO: "Gaps in their [federal agency] policies and procedures reduced agencies' ability to protect personally identifiable information from improper disclosure."

Also, I'd like to pose a question: Why does citizen personally identifiable information need be on a notebook or "other mobile device" at all?

Is it too much to ask, when working with sensitive information, that workers and consultants actually sit at a workstation, in an office, where the network and system can be kept highly secured? And if they need remote access, why not use a thin device so the data stays in the database, and isn't left at a worksite ... or on a table in Starbucks.

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