Agencies warned to beef up Web security

Experts from three government agencies heavily devoted to information technology testified Thursday that in order to keep hackers from breaking into federal government Web sites, agencies need to rely more upon skilled security precautions than legal statutes against computerized breaking-and-entering.

Testifying before a House Science subcommittee Thursday about the vulnerability of federal government Web sites to hackers, representatives from the National Security Agency, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, and the technical director of the Office of the Chief Scientist at the General Accounting Office agreed that the government needed to get its act together before seeking stiffer penalties against hackers.

"As a result of listening to this testimony, I would like to have some kind of evaluative system within agencies" that report to Congress, Technology Subcommittee Chairwoman Connie Morella, R-Md., said in an interview after the hearing. She said the system could be analogous to current oversights regarding progress made on stamping out problems emanating from the Y2K computer bug.

"We must do something to make sure that agencies must do this," said Morella, saying that previous government directives from the Office of Management and Budget and NIST have been repeatedly ignored. Many agencies have responded to the OMB's directive to create a Y2K preparedness framework, by simply making a plan to make a plan, she said.

Panel members largely agreed. "As a government, we are falling short in implementation," said Raymond Kammer, director of NIST. "The policies are reasonable, but the big issue is getting the federal government to implement the procedures that are already there."

"Make it a requirement that people talk with NSA and NIST, not a recommendation," said the GAO's Keith Rhodes, when asked for recommendations to improve the government's information security execution. "People's aversion to ignoring standards developed by NSA has to be overcome."

Rhodes also emphasized the need for clear definitions of what constitutes data authentication and validation at a time when government is beginning to conduct more of its business online. But he questioned Morella's idea of creating an information security "czar" for the whole federal government, saying the job was too big for a single person, as well as important differences between computer security for civilian and national security agencies.

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