IG: Energy Department vulnerable to cyberattacks

An unorganized patchwork approach to information security leaves the Energy Department vulnerable to cyberattacks on its networks, according to a report released this week by Energy's inspector general.

As many as eight organizations within Energy were involved in cybersecurity intrusion and analysis, according to the report. The organizations' "missions and functions were found to be, at least partially, duplicative and not well coordinated," the inspector general concluded, adding that Energy has no common format to follow when reporting a security incident.

In fiscal 2006, Energy reported 132 cyberattacks that were severe enough to require reporting them to law enforcement, an increase of 22 percent from fiscal 2005.

Such incidents involved hackers penetrating a firewall and a detection system on Energy's networks in 2005 to compromise 1,500 personnel records. In November 2005, the Office of Security and Safety Performance Assessment successfully penetrated Energy's unclassified computer system, gaining access to financial and personal data, and could have impersonated or monitored department executives.

The inspector general concluded that the lack of a cybersecurity strategy that coordinates policies and processes leaves Energy vulnerable to such cyberattacks. Without such a unified plan, " … the department may be unable to promptly and completely respond to successful attacks; recognize and develop response strategies for systematic attacks; and, in general, ensure that systems and the critical, operational and personally identifiable information they contain are adequately protected," the report stated. "The failure to promptly and completely report serious incidents to law enforcement and counterintelligence officials could also compromise the ability of those organizations to preserve evidence and/or mount a successful investigation or response."

The danger resulting from the lack of a strategy is exacerbated by Energy's attractiveness as a target for hackers. It faces hundreds of thousands of attacks daily, according to the department.

"Energy is a high-value target," said James Lewis, a senior fellow who specializes in information security issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Foreign entities would love to steal, and probably have stolen, sensitive information from Energy. If they were [the Housing and Urban Development Department], for example, they wouldn't have three or four of the most skilled foreign governments trying to break into their systems every day.

"Energy knows they have a problem and have worked on cybersecurity, but given the interest they get from foreign opponents, they probably need to do more," Lewis added. The inspector general recommended that Energy develop an enterprisewide cybersecurity incident management strategy that clearly defines the lines of authority and responsibility for reporting and recovering from breaches. The IG also recommended it adopt a mechanism to regularly test and evaluate its ability to detect, analyze and respond to attacks at multiple sites.

In a memorandum attached to the initial report, dated Dec. 19, 2007, Chief Information Officer Thomas Pyke Jr. said he concurred with the inspector general's recommendations and added his office already was working on a new approach called the integrated Enterprise Incident Capability.

The enterprise plan will enable Energy to structure a cyber incident response by consolidating the security organizations throughout the department, according to Pyke. His office says it should complete the plan, with a review by Energy managers, no later than March 31. Pyke also wrote that Energy recognizes the need to test its cyber incident response mechanisms and outlined several measures already in place.

Much of the difficulty in crafting a single response cybersecurity strategy stemmed from Energy's unique nature as a grouping of various organizations and laboratories, Lewis said

"Energy doesn't work as a single enterprise; it's more like a federation," he said. "Energy, along with [the Department Department] and [the Homeland Security Department] is one of the three great departments made by gluing together separate agencies. It's one mailbox, but not one culture. Even 30 years later, labs tend to be resistant to central guidance."

The responsibility for reaching a unified solution will come down to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, Lewis said. "Ultimately, the secretary has to set a certain standard and hold people accountable," he said. CSIS analyzed their cybersecurity incident response "and went running," he said, adding that the top energy executives need to push harder "to get people to obey."

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