Audit finds FEMA laptops lack proper security settings

The Federal Emergency Management Agency needs better policies and procedures for safeguarding its inventory of 32,000 laptop computers from unauthorized users, according to a recent audit report.

The partially redacted 37-page report from the Homeland Security Department's inspector general said that without the proper security configurations, sensitive data on the laptops might be at risk.

The audit was conducted in the wake of 16 security incidents involving stolen or missing DHS laptop computers in 2006. The IG and the Government Accountability Office reported last summer that FEMA had more than 100 missing and presumed stolen laptops valued at $300,000.

For the recent review, auditors tested a sample of 298 FEMA laptops. Deficiencies included failure to apply security settings that met mandatory standards, and a lack of procedures for installing software security updates.

Because FEMA applied the same security policies for its desktop computers, the configuration weaknesses identified with laptop computers apply to all government-issued computers at the agency, the IG found.

FEMA has not classified its laptop computers as part of a recognized information technology system, so auditors were unable to evaluate whether the agency was compliant with requirements of the 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act.

To secure data stored on government-issued laptop computers, auditors recommended that FEMA's chief information officer, Anthony Cira, develop and implement a standard security setting for all agency computers. The agency also should fix existing "critical vulnerabilities" identified on the laptop computers tested by the auditors and check to see whether other laptops have similar weaknesses, the IG said.

In a heavily redacted section of the report, auditors outlined how many of the computers tested had not received the most recent security software updates. FEMA officials concurred with the IG's recommendation in that area, by agreeing to implement an automated software patch management system.

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