Accentuate the Negative

Okay class, it's time for a pop quiz. First, a little background. Two years ago, the General Accounting Office reported on what it said were "serious weaknesses" in computer security at five Internal Revenue Service facilities. Among other problems, GAO noted, the IRS couldn't account for 6,400 magnetic tapes that might contain sensitive taxpayer data.

Last year, GAO went back to see what the IRS had done to fix the situation. Auditors found that in a year's time, the IRS had dealt with 63 percent of the weaknesses discussed in the previous report. And by the time GAO's report came out in December, the IRS said it had addressed another 12 percent of the problems.

The new report made it clear that GAO still had found security weaknesses, including some the auditors could not make public. But they concluded the IRS "is making significant progress to improve computer security over its facilities."

Now for the quiz: Which of the following was the headline that appeared on the story that went out over the Associated Press wire the day the report was released?

A. "IRS Makes Strides in Improving Computer Security"
B. Audit Finds Lack of Computer Security Puts Taxpayer Data at Risk"

Most of you will probably not be surprised to learn that the correct answer is B.

"Chronic weaknesses in the IRS computer system are putting sensitive personal information about taxpayers at risk of improper uses, including theft and fraud," the AP reported in a story that was made available to newspapers across the country and posted on hundreds of Web sites. The story highlighted the fact that the IRS couldn't locate 397 computer tapes, without noting the 6,400 figure from the year before.

Why the doomsday spin? It would be easy to chalk it up to relentless media negativity and anti-government bias. But it's actually more complicated than that. Three factors help explain why this story and others like it are played the way they are in the papers, on TV and on the Web.

The long arm of the investigator. GAO's reports are meticulously researched, rigorously reviewed and reported in dispassionate, nonpartisan terms. But the agency is the investigative arm of Congress, empowered to look into any issue that involves the disbursement of public funds. Given this role, it's hardly surprising that GAO auditors rarely produce reports that paint agencies in glowing terms.

Even in those instances when it reaches largely positive conclusions, GAO tends to hedge its bets. The title of the December report on the IRS is a great example: "IRS Systems Security: Although Significant Improvements Made, Tax Processing and Data Still at Risk."

Spin, spin, spin. Members of Congress, on the other hand, rarely sit on the fence when it comes to interpreting GAO's work. And since GAO reports usually don't make their way into the public eye unless a Senator or Representative releases them to the media, what the politicians think has a big effect on how the press plays GAO's findings.

The IRS report was released by Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who made it clear he thought its conclusions were cause for alarm.

"The IRS is leaving the door open for computer hackers to target taxpayers' Social Security and financial information," Thompson said in a press release. "Personal information on IRS computers is at risk of unauthorized disclosure, destruction or modification, and most alarmingly, to identity theft." Note the multiple hot buttons-hackers, Social Security, financial information, personal information, identity theft-pushed in just two sentences.

A higher standard. The AP largely bought Thompson's spin on the report. But that doesn't necessarily mean that its reporter simply wanted to cast the agency in a bad light, or assumed that no one would want to read a story about a federal agency improving its operations.

Media organizations have long taken the view that in representing the public's interest, they must hold the government to the highest possible standards. In a case like this, it's fairly easy to see why.

The IRS may have done a terrific job in a short period of time fixing the vast majority of its systems security problems. But it still couldn't account for nearly 400 computer tapes likely to be loaded with sensitive information. And it isn't really unfair to suggest that the only acceptable number of missing tapes is zero.

There's no quicker way to light a fire under an agency than to give it bad press. Following the 1997 GAO report, and the negative media coverage that accompanied it, the IRS swiftly moved to create an Office of Systems Standards and Evaluation. The office includes more than 60 security, privacy and computer experts, Brian Friel noted in a report for

Obviously, the IRS is now bending over backward to make sure it has no security holes whatsoever the next time GAO comes around. And that's not a bad thing-even though if the IRS succeeds, you'll probably never read about it.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.