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GAO: Many Federal Agencies Still Don't Meet Security Standards

'Persistent weaknesses' may leave key agencies vulnerable to attack or compromise, report says

Virtually all of the U.S. federal government's key civilian agencies are still falling short of the security marks they have been asked to meet, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In a report (PDF) issued earlier today, the GAO says of the 24 agencies reviewed, almost all had deficiencies in security controls and management, "leaving them vulnerable to attack or compromise." The GAO says it has made "hundreds" of recommendations to the agencies, yet many have not been addressed.

During the past three years, the number of incidents reported by federal agencies to U.S.-CERT has increased by almost 200 percent -- from 5,503 in 2006 to 16,843 in 2008, according to the report. More than one-third of the incidents are still under investigation, and the sources of the compromises are not yet known.

Of the incidents in which the sources are known, approximately 22 percent were caused by improper use of computers by authorized users, the report states. Eighteen percent of the compromises were caused by unauthorized access, and 14 percent were caused by malicious code. About 12 percent of the breaches were caused by scans, probes, or attempted access by external attackers, the report says.

Of the 24 agencies reviewed, 13 reported "significant deficiencies" in information security, the GAO says. Seven agencies reported "material weaknesses" that still have not been repaired. Only four agencies reported "no significant weakness," the report states.

Virtually all of the agencies are still showing weaknesses in access control -- the ability to ensure only authorized individuals can read, alter, or delete data -- and all of the agencies are still short on their implementations of broad security management programs that include risk management, the GAO says.

Most of the agencies are still struggling in their efforts to deploy user identification and authentication that might prevent unauthorized users from gaining access to sensitive data, the report states. Many agencies also have failed to deploy least-privilege strategies that would limit users' access to data unless it is expressly needed for their jobs, the GAO says.

The federal government has undertaken a number of initiatives to improve its security -- including the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative, the Federal Desktop Core Configuration guidelines, and the Trusted Internet Connections Initiative -- that may help mitigate the vulnerabilities, the GAO says. However, many agencies have had "mixed results" in their efforts to raise security awareness and implement specialized security training, the report says.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

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