Security problems plague federal accounting system

Serious computer security problems continue to plague the government's central accounting system, putting data and dollars at risk.

The General Accounting Office delivered that message in a report released last week. GAO praised the Treasury Department's Financial Management Service, or FMS, for making strides in outlining security procedures and guidance-a recommendation GAO made in its fiscal 1998 report on FMS (GAO/AIMD-00-04)-but criticized the organization for poor training of security staff and lax enforcement of security policies.

FMS oversees the federal government's accounting and reporting systems and distributes money to most federal agencies. For fiscal year 1999, the government distributed over $1.7 trillion, mainly for social security and veterans benefit payments, IRS tax refunds, federal employee salaries, and contractor payments.

The GAO report said, "The pervasive weaknesses we identified in FMS' computer controls at most of its data centers during our fiscal year 1999 audit render FMS' overall security control environment ineffective in identifying, deterring, and responding to computer control weaknesses promptly. Consequently, billions of dollars and collections are at significant risk of loss or fraud, sensitive data are at risk of inappropriate disclosure, and critical computer-based operations are vulnerable to serious disruptions."

Access controls in each of the data centers studied for fiscal years 1997, 1998, and 1999 were inadequate, GAO said. Access controls protect data and computer programs from unauthorized users.

GAO found that many FMS data centers did not manage passwords and user IDs effectively and granted excessive systems privileges to users who did not need them.

FMS also failed to develop a contingency plan to protect sensitive information from being lost or disclosed in case of disaster, the report said.

GAO recommended that FMS and Treasury leadership correct each of the individual computer security weaknesses identified.

FMS agreed that security needs to be improved, but also said it has made progess correcting problems identified in audits from the past two fiscal years.

"FMS has corrected or mitigated the risk associated with 80 of the 94 findings from the 1998 audit and ten of the 19 new findings identified in the 1999 audit. Corrective action is under way on all of the remaining 23 findings," said FMS Commissioner Richard L. Gregg.

Gregg also said that FMS will track closely progress in improving security, conducting reviews and providing monthly briefings to senior FMS management.

The report "Financial Management Service: Significant Weaknesses in Computer Controls" (GAO/AIMD-00-305) is at GAO's Web site.

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