Energy Dept. Breach: Let's Get Back To Basics

What can lack of internal cooperation and insufficient IT resources add up to create? Unpatched servers.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

September 3, 2013

3 Min Read

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What does the recent Department of Energy data breach teach us? Based on the details InformationWeek has pieced together so far, it appears it's an old lesson: lack of internal cooperation, a lax IT security policy and insufficient resources.

As InformationWeek first reported on Aug. 30, a cyberattack on a DOE server "owned and maintained by the agency's Office of the Chief Financial Officer" compromised the names, dates of birth and social security numbers of 53,000 employees, according to an internal memo. What that statement suggests is that central IT wasn't managing the server.

In these wild and heady days in which Gartner has all but proclaimed central IT to be dead (and don't think that department heads haven't read the Spark Notes versions in the popular press), individual business units have almost tacit permission to buy their own servers and services without thinking about the implications. And this approach sounds practical enough, especially when business units are frustrated with IT for one reason or another. That is, until your organization (like the DOE) makes the wrong kind of headlines because of its lack of security oversight.

[ Who's really to blame for hack? Read Department Of Energy Cyberattack: 5 Takeaways. ]

Every organization has its own unique mission and culture, requiring its own unique balance between IT restrictiveness and freedom. Defining that balance takes time and cooperation between IT and non-IT stakeholders. Any time one or the other party has too much of a say in setting the ground rules, it will serve its own interests.

For most IT organizations, that one-sided control would mean total system lockdown. For most non-IT folks, it would mean turning off virus protection, posting passwords on computers … or standing up servers without giving much thought to ongoing security.

When I read that the version of ColdFusion being used by the DOE on its hacked server "remained outdated and vulnerable to known exploits," I could only conclude that the agency had gone outside of central IT. Yes, even central IT organizations were bad at patching software a few years ago, but it's hard for me to believe that any IT organization is that bad at patching nowadays.

Key to establishing a culture in which business units want to work with the IT organization is to move beyond compliance to cooperation. The trouble with compliance is that you'll spend most of your time updating your security policy to cover every loophole. Compliance is all about brute force. Cooperation happens as part of building an ongoing relationship and credibility, so that business units perceive IT as helpful instead of the bottleneck or roadblock.

So why, in the DOE case, didn't central IT detect an unpatched server and come in to save the day? Could a lack of IT resources have played a part in the breach?

Almost certainly. When IT organization are understaffed, underfunded or both, "optional" activities simply don't get done. Periodic audits of systems outside of IT's span of control are one of those activities.

But let's remember that central IT activities don't necessarily have to be funded by IT. In cases where the IT organization and business units have a strong relationship, I've seen units chip in for security audits specifically, as well as for data gathering, a phone system update, even a database redesign. It's yet another reason not to squander your social capital by applying overly restrictive, mother-may-I unilateral security policies.

No question, all organizations can be hacked; it's a matter of how hard we make it for the bad guys. For crying out loud, let's at least get the basics right to reduce the number of "unpatched server" breaches.

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at

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