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Feds Under Fire Over Security

Agencies get C- on security report card; FTC criticized for low number of spam, spyware convictions

Congress is ticked off about computer security.

Over the last two days, members of both the House and Senate have registered complaints over the way government agencies are dealing with the security issue, and they've called for action to address the problems.

Earlier today, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), ranking member of the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee, gave the federal government an overall grade of C-minus when it comes to safekeeping information on government computer systems.

Davis's report card came just a day after members of the Senate Commerce Committee criticized the Federal Trade Commission for not bringing more cases against spyware and other malware authors.

Davis, who was one of the authors of the FISMA regulations for federal agencies in 2002, issues a report card each year that evaluates how well the agencies are doing in their compliance efforts. The C- was actually an improvement over the D+, D+, and D- the agencies have received over the past three years.

"This grade indicates slow but steady improvement from past years," said Davis. "Obviously, challenges remain. While there are some excellent signs of progress in this year's report, and that's encouraging, I remain concerned that large agencies like [the Department of Defense] and [the Department of Homeland Security] are still lagging in their compliance."

The Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development showed the most improvement from 2005 to 2006, Davis said. Justice jumped from a D to an A-, and HUD climbed from D+ to A+. HUD had, for the first time, developed a full inventory of its information security apparatus, a major plus in the grading. It also showed improvement in virtually all categories.

NASA, which fell from B- to D-, and the Department of Education, which fell from C-minus to F, showed the biggest declines.

The grades are derived from annual reports agencies produce to comply with the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA). Agencies are rated on their annual tests of information security, their plans of action and milestones or corrective action plans, and other factors such as certification, configuration, training, and accuracy of inventory.

The Department of Homeland Security received a D this year, the first time since ratings began in 2003 that it did not receive an F. Davis attributed the improvement to DHS finally establishing an inventory of its secure computer systems, a critical first step to information security. "You can't protect what you don't know you have," Davis said.

Security experts said the low grades at DHS and DOD don't necessarily mean those agencies are vulnerable to attack. "We work with DOD on a regular basis, and I can tell you their security architecture is very robust," says Chris Fountain, CEO of SecureInfo, an information assurance company that works with federal agencies. "DOD is so large, and DHS is so new, it's harder for them to come into compliance quickly."

Aside from FISMA grading, federal agencies would benefit from some sort of penetration test that would give a more quantitative assessment of their vulnerabilities, Fountain suggests.

While many federal agencies were taking their lumps on one side of Capitol Hill, the FTC and Congress were exchanging glancing blows on the other. FTC Chairwoman Deborah Platt Majoras asked the Senate Congress Committee for more money to pursue spammers, spyware purveyors, and pretexters, and she pushed Congress for stiffer penalties against the perpetrators.

But some committee members dinged the FTC on its prosecution record. The commission has filed only 11 cases against spyware purveyors in the last two years, Majoras conceded, and it has filed only 89 legal actions against spammers in the last decade -- and only eight in 2006.

Commissioner William Kovacic said the FTC is working with other law enforcement agencies -- both inside and outside the U.S. -- to put spyware and malware authors in jail, rather than just fine them. "Until we have success as a law enforcement community in placing them in prison," he said. "I don't think we'll ultimately have the deterrent influence we need."

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

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