Fed Workers Still in the Dark

Despite completing awareness courses, majority of government workers say they've never heard of key guidelines

Here on Memorial Day -- the day when federal employees remember their past -- a researcher is about to reveal that many of those workers can't remember what they were supposed to have learned just a few months ago.

SecureInfo, a security firm that specializes in federal government services, will publish Tuesday a study showing that although more than 90 percent of agency workers have completed a security awareness training course in the last 12 months, 65 percent of them have never heard of FISMA, the federal IT security standard.

The Federal Information Security Management Act defines the U.S. government's requirements for information security, both in IT and among workers and contractors. FISMA is to government workers what Sarbanes-Oxley is to public companies, or HIPAA is to the health-care industry.

Under FISMA, agency employees are required to complete a "security awareness" course every year, and both the SecureInfo study and the FISMA report to Congress indicate that more than 90 percent of workers have completed that course.

Yet, when SecureInfo polled government employees about FISMA, 65 percent said they had never heard of it. Forty-seven percent of those who had heard of it described it as "a compliance headache." Only 45 percent of those who had heard of FISMA believe it to be "an effective means of improving security posture," the study says.

"The federal government spent approximately $74 million on security awareness training last year," notes Chris Fountain, president and CEO of SecureInfo. "But based on what we found in the study, it doesn't seem to have been very effective."

SecureInfo's study may be self-serving, since the company offers both government security training and penetration testing services. But other reports support the company's thesis that federal agencies are not doing enough on the security front. Just last week, the General Accounting Office published a report stating that the FBI's IT systems are vulnerable to insider attack. (See FBI's IT Security Vulnerable to Insiders, GAO Finds.) And last month, cyber security experts told Congress that federal agencies are not prepared for online attacks. (See Experts: US Not Prepared for Cyber Attack.)

The problem, in part, is that while government workers are trained in security, they are seldom tested on their knowledge or practices, Fountain says. "There ought to be some sort of testing, and if they don't pass, then it should be reflected in [employee performance] appraisals."

Government agencies also should be penetration-tested frequently during the course of the year, to determine whether employees are adhering to policy. "In the public sector, there have been studies that show that more than 80 percent of breaches occur because of inadvertent mistakes -- employees who don't know the policy or simply ignore it without any malicious intent," Fountain says. "Those are the employees you want to target."

Fountain recommends systematic testing of federal security systems, both through ethical hacking from the outside and through social engineering to test the physical security of government buildings and desktops. "You don't have to do it all at once," he says. "You can do it in small increments, testing different elements over the course of the year."

Many experts recently have despaired about user training, noting that despite a large investment, end users are still making the same mistakes. (See Getting Users Fixed and Giving Up Hope on Users.)

"I used to work for eBay, and we spent millions and millions and millions on user training," recalls Robert Hansen (a.k.a. RSnake), founder of SecTheory,, and "The end result was it didn’t do any good."

But closing the end-user vulnerability can't be done entirely through technology, Fountain counters. "You can have great technology, but it isn't going to stop the user from putting a yellow sticky on the keyboard with all his passwords."

The full study will be available tomorrow.

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

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