Users continue to compromise federal computer networks, says tech community

More than half of government IT professionals know of violations in security protocols, according to a recent survey. Funding challenges hinder agencies' ability to put proper security measures in place, while lack of systems and requirements standardization creates confusion in the market, said an industry official.

Of 474 federal IT professionals, 56 percent reported witnessing or hearing about a security violation, according to a survey by Washington-based research firm Pursuant on behalf of Quest Software Public Sector. The nature of violations vary depending on the requirements of the agency, but could include improper access to an application, or failing to encrypt data downloaded to a mobile device. Identity management solutions can help prevent violations, but only if properly and fully implemented.

"Beyond technology, there has to be operational processes in place to secure information," said Paul Garver, Quest Software's public sector vice president. "Education is hugely important. [Agencies can't] just do this to meet requirements of HSPD 12 [Homeland Security Presidential Directive] ," the 2004 directive issued by the Office of Management and Budget that requires new identity cards to replace the standard employee flash-card badges by Oct. 27. The credentials, which include biometric information such as fingerprints, will provide a common identification standard to allow employees and contractors to access federal buildings and computer networks securely. However, specifications are not in place for monitoring information users access once inside.

While mandates like HSPD 12 drive identity management solutions in agencies -- 45 percent of survey respondents confirmed that their agencies already have an identity management system -- results show that various agency requirements blunt impact. More than 50 percent of respondents reported that a heterogeneous application environment that includes Microsoft Windows, as well as Linux and Unix for example, creates challenges in information security efforts because centralized identity management becomes more complex.

"There's a lot of work to do," said Scott Hastings, a partner at the federal IT consulting firm Deep Water Point and former chief information officer for the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology Program Management Office. "Frankly, I don't think we've done a good job nailing down what's in the box," in terms of software. At the same time, he said, different agencies implement different requirements. "There are a lot of definitions for identity management. Up to this point, agencies have just reacted to an OMB advisory. But it doesn't seem like anyone has really decided how best to [protect information]; what's the expectation?"

Growth in the identity management market is expected, driven by high-profile security breaches and government mandates like HSPD 12, the 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act, and the Federal Information Processing Standards Publication 201, which specifies personal identity verification requirements for federal employees and contractors. According to the survey, 69 percent of respondents believed the identity market was very important to their organization or agency, and 72 percent expected identity management to grow in importance in the next five years. Lack of funding stood as the primary obstacle to implementing security measures, according to 31 percent of respondents. Insufficient staffing resources and technology complexity also posed challenges.

"This survey is a baseline, before the big wave and people start paying more attention," Hastings said. "It will be interesting next year, with the change of administration and probably a whole bunch more publicity around some of the threats we've been dealing with. This is an issue that will be huge. People are searching for how to attack this."

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