Education Department struggles to protect security of financial system

Computer security weaknesses continue to make the Education Department's main financial management system vulnerable to misuse, despite recent improvements in security, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office. The report, "Education Information Security: Improvements Made But Control Weaknesses Remain" (GAO-01-1067), assessed the Education Department's general controls over its Central Automated Processing System, the department's main financial management system. General controls help prevent unauthorized access to information and guarantee that operations aren't disrupted. They include computer security management, operating procedures, software security features and physical protection. The Education Department has struggled with misuse of its financial management system for years. According to the agency's inspector general, more than $450 million in agency funds have been misused over the past three years. In March 2000, an agency employee embezzled nearly $2 million in federal grant money intended for two South Dakota school districts, using the money to purchase cars and property. The department seized the property and funds and both districts eventually received all of their grant money. From January 1997 to December 1999, contractors and Education employees, conspiring together, stole more than $300,000 worth of electronic equipment and collected more than $600,000 in false overtime pay. While Education did take some steps toward improving oversight of its financial system, it was still not enough to secure the department's information, GAO found. "Education did not sufficiently protect its network from unauthorized users, effectively manage user IDs and passwords, appropriately limit access to authorized users, effectively maintain system software controls or routinely monitor user access activity," the report found. Physical security, such as controlling changes to computer applications, is another area where Education fell short, according to GAO. GAO noted that Education is in the process of implementing a new computer security management program. Since the report's release, Education officials said many of the weaknesses GAO found have been fixed. A corrective action plan has been developed for remaining problems. In April, Education Secretary Rod Paige created an eight-member team from Education's senior ranks to develop internal controls to protect the department from mismanagement.
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