Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


07:16 PM
Patricia Keefe
Patricia Keefe

A Lesson Plan For The Department Of Education

Another week, another preventable exposure of citizen data at a government agency. Last week's spillage in the spotlight came courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education. A glitch in a new software program created a situation where the wrong client data was being shown to people trying to update their student loan accounts. After a number of complaints, the ED shut down the affected Web pages. Then, apparen

Another week, another preventable exposure of citizen data at a government agency. Last week's spillage in the spotlight came courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education. A glitch in a new software program created a situation where the wrong client data was being shown to people trying to update their student loan accounts. After a number of complaints, the ED shut down the affected Web pages. Then, apparently, they worked on stonewalling.As reporter Sharon Gaudin and I worked on the story, formulating questions and a list of people to call and things to check, it quickly became clear that from a PR standpoint, the agency and its contractor need to study up on recent history.

If they did, they might learn that data breaches in general, and delayed admissions in particular, are greeted with much horror and scrutiny by the public and, increasingly, legislative bodies. They might also learn that the anger and angst over such breaches has led to Senate hearings, public pillorying, canceled contracts, the largest-ever fine issued by the Federal Trade Commission, new security directives from the White House for federal agencies, and, increasingly, firings and resignations. If they found themselves a little pressed for time and in need of some CliffsNotes on the subject, they could cut to the chase very quickly by calling over to the Veterans Administration.

If they did any of that, they might also have discovered there are several cardinal rules of spin control, among them:

* Ignorance is not bliss. * The longer you stall exponentially lengthens the lifespan of the story. * The press won't go away empty-handed.

I would to add to this that anyone victimized or negatively impacted by your mistake has a right to an immediate explanation.

Of course, the real goal is NOT to have to employ spin control, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Despite the fact that the breach was detailed in a front-page story in a major metropolitan daily newspaper, complete with a huge jump, we found both the contractor and the ED less than ready, and seemingly unwilling, to explain what had happened. And as of Friday, almost a week after the event, we still couldn't find any sign of a press release or official statement, or anyone who could say what program exactly had caused the problem. Also still unclear was whether anyone bothered to test the new software before deploying it. (That's where the part about avoiding the need for spin control comes in.)

In between, a vice president at the contractor responsible for the software install claimed to have no knowledge of the software in question, noting that the company handles a lot of projects, and he couldn't be expected to be intimate with all of them. All of them? Of course not. But how about the one that exposed the personal data of users on a government Web site? Especially three days after the incident was discovered and examined in detail in a lengthy front-page news story. Yeah, that's one we'd expect him to be "intimate" with.

Then, despite his saying he had no knowledge of either the incident or the application, he nonetheless asserted that "no one's data was lost." When pressed as to how he could possibly know that, he backed up in a hurry. In fact, he can't know that. The Department of Education doesn't know, either. What we do know is that some visitors to the site were handed the keys to stealing other citizens' identity, were they inclined to do so. (In fact, about 21,000 users of the student loan application are at risk of having their data exposed.)

The department wasn't much more forthcoming initially. While acknowledging that any breach, no matter how small, is one too many and needs to be taken seriously, and despite insisting that the ED wasn't trying to keep information from the public, the spokeswoman also said there was no press release or official statement, and no plans to have either "at this time." Nor was any information put up on its Web site. In fact, as of Thursday, the plan was to alert the 21,000 visitors whose data might have been compromised by letter. As in snail mail.

The point here isn't that some government workers gave some reporters a hard time. We eventually got an interview and some information confirmed. It's about accountability, and about letting the public know when they've been exposed to a risk. It's about letting actions speak louder than words. Don't tell us you're taking it seriously--show us.

If the contractor and the ED spokeswoman were for real and knew this little about the incident after the fact, it kind of makes you wonder how much attention both the agency and the contractor were paying to begin with. There's a lot of data here to be responsible for, and that's where "taking it seriously" really comes into play. You can't just talk the talk, you have to walk it, too.

One can only hope that the powers that be at both the agency and the contractor have the good sense to order up a postmortem so that they can figure out what software was involved, why this happened, what they need to do to make sure it doesn't happen again, and how they're going to handle it if--worst case scenario--it does.

In the meantime, if they aren't publicly flogged by the GAO, questioned by a Senate committee, or asked to clear out their desks, they can consider themselves half as lucky as the users of the student loan program who were affected by the glitch and don't have their identities stolen.

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Former CISA Director Chris Krebs Discusses Risk Management & Threat Intel
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  2/23/2021
Security + Fraud Protection: Your One-Two Punch Against Cyberattacks
Joshua Goldfarb, Director of Product Management at F5,  2/23/2021
Cybercrime Groups More Prolific, Focus on Healthcare in 2020
Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer,  2/22/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Cartoon Contest
Write a Caption, Win an Amazon Gift Card! Click Here
Latest Comment: This comment is waiting for review by our moderators.
Current Issue
2021 Top Enterprise IT Trends
We've identified the key trends that are poised to impact the IT landscape in 2021. Find out why they're important and how they will affect you today!
Flash Poll
Building the SOC of the Future
Building the SOC of the Future
Digital transformation, cloud-focused attacks, and a worldwide pandemic. The past year has changed the way business works and the way security teams operate. There is no going back.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
PUBLISHED: 2021-03-01
The fix for CVE-2020-9484 was incomplete. When using Apache Tomcat 10.0.0-M1 to 10.0.0, 9.0.0.M1 to 9.0.41, 8.5.0 to 8.5.61 or 7.0.0. to 7.0.107 with a configuration edge case that was highly unlikely to be used, the Tomcat instance was still vulnerable to CVE-2020-9494. Note that both the previousl...
PUBLISHED: 2021-03-01
When responding to new h2c connection requests, Apache Tomcat versions 10.0.0-M1 to 10.0.0, 9.0.0.M1 to 9.0.41 and 8.5.0 to 8.5.61 could duplicate request headers and a limited amount of request body from one request to another meaning user A and user B could both see the results of user A's request...
PUBLISHED: 2021-03-01
In Dataiku DSS before 8.0.6, insufficient access control in the Jupyter notebooks integration allows users (who have coding permissions) to read and overwrite notebooks in projects that they are not authorized to access.
PUBLISHED: 2021-02-27
SerComm AG Combo VD625 AGSOT_2.1.0 devices allow CRLF injection (for HTTP header injection) in the download function via the Content-Disposition header.
PUBLISHED: 2021-02-27
An issue was discovered in through SaltStack Salt before 3002.5. salt.modules.cmdmod can log credentials to the info or error log level.