Data sharing by federal employees complicates security

The government faces difficulties establishing certain security measures as federal employees increasingly use the Internet to exchange information, according to a government report released Thursday.

The General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, said security assurances beyond passwords are needed to protect sensitive, financial and personal data transferred via the Internet during communication and transactions among government employees and business partners and the federal government.

The survey--requested by the House Government Reform Committee in September 2002 to get a clearer picture of the status of security measures--outlined several obstacles faced by the agencies in employing the necessary hardware, software, policies and people.

The problems "pretty much line up" with those identified by GAO when it conducted an initial report on the topic in 2001. The latest study found that agencies lack policy guidelines and a budget structure. Additionally, problems surface when the agencies try to connect existing systems to new security systems and then train personnel to use and manage them.

Although difficulties exist, GAO found that 20 of the 24 federal agencies are pursuing a total of 89 public-key infrastructure (PKI) initiatives, which are used to encrypt computer exchanges. The initiatives are at various development stages and total $1 billion. Only a few agencies had projects underway during the 2001 study, a GAO official said.

In 2001, GAO also recommended that the White House Office of Management and Budget, federal chief information officers and National Institute of Standards and Technology address the challenges identified by GAO, including establishing a government-wide policy framework and technical guidance, and a program plan for the federal government.

"OMB has not yet fully addressed our recommendations," said the report, adding that GAO issued a policy memorandum in July 2003 that outlined steps to consolidate investments for verifying the identities of people using online services and to implement other security measures.

GAO also found that only four agencies use federal programs that offer PKI services, such as linking independent agency initiatives into a broader government network. "The government-wide programs continue to promote the adoption and implementation of [security measures], but these programs have seen mixed progress and results," GAO said.

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