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Most Federal Government Websites Lack Basic Security

HTTPS and DNSSEC not used across the board on agency websites despite federal requirements to do so.

The majority of federal agency websites fail to meet basic standards for security as well as for speed and mobile-friendliness.

That's the finding from a new study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), which says 92% of the 297 most popular fed websites lacked security basics, as well as proper performance and accessibility to people with disabilities. The study is based on a November 2016 analysis of the websites.

Alan McQuinn, the ITIF research analyst who headed up the project, says executive agencies "generally fared better than the non-executive agencies" when it comes to security as well as accessibility and convenience standards.

The security picture is especially vexing. For example, the Bush administration's OMB in 2008 required that all federal agencies use the Domain Name System Security (DNSSEC) protocol that protects DNS lookup and exchange processes. Today, nearly a decade later, 10% of agencies still don't use DNSSEC on their websites, ITIF found. Agencies that failed the DNSSEC test include the House of Representatives (house.gov), the Speaker of the House of Representatives (speaker.gov), and the U.S. Forest Service (fs.fed.us).

The same holds true for a 2015 Obama administration requirement that agencies use HTTPS to secure their websites: 14% still don’t use HTTPS, says McQuinn.

Agencies that don’t use HTTPS and failed the test for SSL certificates include the Department of Defense (defense.gov), the International Trade Administration (trade.gov), and the United States Courts (uscourts.gov). McQuinn says that DoD has since added the HTTPS feature to its website and expects others to follow.

Shawn McCarthy, research director of IDC Government Insights, says cost-conscious agencies should look to the cloud to help manage some of these security issues.

"Agencies need to move to a standard platform in the cloud," he says. "The cloud provider knows about DNSSEC and SSL, and you won’t have to worry about it anymore. The agency can just focus on the content."

The ITIF’s SSL tests on websites also uncovered multiple high-profile security vulnerabilities.

For example, both LongTermCare.gov and letsmove.gov are vulnerable to the POODLE attack, a weakness in certain systems that support SSL 3.0 that lets attackers gain access to data passed within encrypted traffic. The SSL tests also found that SaferProducts.gov is susceptible to man-in-the-middle attacks and the tsunami.gov sites are vulnerable to the DROWN attack.

Here are some other highlights of the ITIF report:

Speed: While 22% of websites failed the speed test for desktops, 64% failed the speed test for mobile devices; the tests evaluate features such as the speed of optimized images and landing page redirects; websites that failed both mobile and desktop speed tests include the General Services Administration (gsa.gov), the Federal Trade Commission’s IdentityTheft.gov and the National Cancer Institute (cancer.gov).

Mobile friendliness: 41% of the reviewed websites were not mobile friendly, meaning the text was too small, metatags did not scale well, and buttons were too small; websites that failed the mobile-friendliness test include the National Weather Service (weather.gov), the Treasury Department (treasury.gov), and the International Trade Administration (trade.gov).

Accessibility: 42% of the sites websites reviewed failed the test for users with disabilities; websites that failed the accessibility test include the International Trade Administration (trade.gov) and the Internal Revenue Service (irs.gov).

 

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