GAO Audit Of IRS Highlights Common Database And Access Control Woes

Problems with incomplete initiatives to meet auditors' demands for improved access control and data security are rampant at IRS and beyond
A new report out from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) ripped into the IRS once again for insufficient access controls, database maintenance, and monitoring necessary to keep taxpayer information safe. The report's findings echo many of the issues seen in database and application security across many large enterprises today, experts say.

Released last week, the GAO's financial audit (PDF) reported that during the past fiscal year, the IRS still had glaring holes in internal controls over information security, in spite of initiating efforts to address concerns levied by the GAO in past years.

"IRS improved several system-level controls, including the encryption of data transferred between some accounting systems, upgrades to critical network devices on the agency’s internal network, and strengthening of the architecture of an important financial system to eliminate identified areas of weakness," the report read. "However, despite these efforts and enhanced management attention toward controls, a majority of the known weaknesses in the agency’s systems and internal network and physical security controls remained unresolved in fiscal year 2011."

According to Don Gray, chief security strategist for Solutionary, an Omaha-based managed security service provider, the IRS isn't special in the fact that it hasn't been able to keep up with regulator demands.

"They've partially addressed the findings that were found before, and they've somewhat implemented some controls. Quite frankly, we see that a lot in large organizations," he says. "For instance, the IRS has this system it was supposed to put in place to collect and analyze user activity. They've got it in a couple of applications, but they don't have it in all the key financial applications. That is something we see time and time again at the corporate level."

Gray says he often sees organizations incorporate monitoring, for instance, on network devices and platforms, but then fail to monitor applications and databases.

"On network devices and platforms, that's easy. Everybody can do it on a Cisco device or a Windows OS," he says. "It's when you actually get down to wanting to tailor that and give yourself visibility on the applications and database side that it gets hard."

Part of that lack of visibility might be a lack of awareness that applications and databases need their own separate set of monitoring. According to Phil Neray, vice president of data security strategy for IBM, many organizations aren't even aware that database activity monitoring (DAM) exists as a solution category.

"I think the biggest problem is that most companies just aren't aware that they need to be doing this stuff around their database," Neray says. "They're still stuck on perimeter security and relying on credentials to secure their systems. It's amazing that a lot of companies still don't even know that the category exists."

Whether you're with the IRS or a private-sector firm, Gray says that organizations have to understand not only that monitoring and controlling access to applications and databases needs to be done, but that it is a completely different kettle of fish from network device and endpoint monitoring.

"You can buy some decent solutions for network security and platform security because everybody's Cisco router works the same. Certainly you have to customize the rule sets, but the data comes from the same place and looks the same; it's just different data," Gray says.

But that's not the case on the application and database side, he adds. "The data doesn't look the same -- the data doesn't come from the same place. So we see customers buy DAM solutions, and they find that it's very difficult to get the granularity that they really want to be able to identify actual malicious use or unauthorized activity," Gray says. "In those cases, it usually needs to be supplemented with additional rules and processing -- you can't do it out of the box."

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