Agencies get lackluster computer security grades

The federal government's computer security practices deserve an overall grade of D-, according to Rep. Stephen Horn, R-Calif., chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee for Management, Information and Technology.

In unveiling his first "report card" for computer security on Monday, Horn assigned federal agencies grades based on their self-reported answers to subcommittee and General Accounting Office questions. The Social Security Administration (B) and the National Science Foundation (B-) garnered the highest grades.

Among those agencies that received an F were Justice and Labor departments, as well as the Small Business Administration and the Office of Personnel Management.

"Obviously, there is a great deal of work ahead," Horn said, armed with a GAO report that found "serious and widespread weaknesses" in each of 24 major federal agencies' computer security systems. "Each agency must recognize that the daily challenges to their computer systems will continue to grow in number and sophistication," said Horn, who graded federal agencies last year on their preparedness for the Year 2000 computer date conversion.

The Commerce, Education, State, Housing and Urban Development departments and the Agency for International Development, received grades of C or C-, and the Defense and Treasury departments, as well as the Environment Protection Agency, General Services Administration and NASA, received grades of D+, D, or D-. Among those agencies receiving an incomplete grade due to lack of information were the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Officials at the Office of Management and Budget, who are responsible for overseeing federal agencies' computer security practices, disputed the legitimacy of a system that assigned a single grade to a complex security system.

"We have concerns that a grading system can be misleading, and whether those ratings have given an accurate snapshot of the efforts federal agencies have taken to safeguard citizens' information," said John Spotila, administrator of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Out of 100 points, Horn's grades were based on whether agencies had established entity-wide security programs (29 points), access controls (26 points), the ability to continuously provide service even when unexpected events occur (18 points), checks on unauthorized change in computer programs (12 points), limiting access to sensitive operating system files (12 points) and segregation of duties controls (3 points).

Daryl White, CIO for the Interior Department, and Edward Hugler, deputy assistant secretary at the Labor Department, attributed their agencies' poor grades-17 and 38 points respectively, the two lowest-to budget cuts in their agency's IT budgets. Hugler also noted that the data was a year old, and the agency had since taken corrective actions.

Rep. J. C. Watts, R-OK, chairman of the House Republican Conference and the Republican Cyber-Security Team, seized upon the results as evidence that government needs to do a better job of protecting its critical information systems. "It is our sworn duty as public officials to defend U.S. citizens as well as to protect national security secrets and other critical information from getting into the wrong hands," he said.

Horn's Grades for Agencies' Computer Security Efforts
September 11, 2000

Agency Grade
Ed. C
State C
Commerce C-
Defense D+
Treasury D
Agriculture F
Justice F
Labor F
Interior F
Energy INC
Transportation INC
Overall D-
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