GAO, Navy add to growing list of federal data breaches

The number of agencies announcing data breaches is continuing to grow, with both the Navy and the Government Accountability Office revealing Friday the inadvertent release of personal information over the Internet.

Personal information, including Social Security numbers, birthdates and names of about 28,000 sailors and their family members, turned up on a civilian Web site in spreadsheet files, the Navy announced. GAO revealed that sensitive information on fewer than 1,000 government workers was available in Internet-accessible archival records.

While the Veterans Affairs Department data loss early last month has gotten the most attention, the GAO and Navy incidents also follow the disclosure of breaches of thousands of employees' personal data at the Agriculture and Energy departments and less significant compromises at the Internal Revenue Service, Social Security Administration and Federal Trade Commission.

In a memorandum Friday, Clay Johnson, Office of Management and Budget deputy director for management, released a checklist of safeguards for the protection of information that is accessed outside agencies' offices and said OMB will work with inspectors general to ensure compliance within the next 45 days.

"Strict adherence to safeguard standards is critical to protecting sensitive data," Johnson said in a statement.

In addition to the checklist, provided by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Johnson recommended that agencies encrypt all data on mobile computers and require two factors of authentication for access, re-authentication after 30 minutes of inactivity and the deletion of all sensitive information within 90 days.

Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute in Bethesda, Md., a nonprofit cybersecurity research organization, said while these four suggestions are very important, there are no requirements for agencies to adhere to them.

House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., said in a statement that the OMB memo "is a sensible step," given the rash of data breaches.

"However, given the spotty record of compliance we have seen among the agencies, I sincerely hope this action leads to both better results and better practices," Davis said. "[I]f not, perhaps Congress will have to step in and mandate specific security requirements."

Paul Kurtz, executive director for the Cyber Security Industry Alliance, said there isn't a "silver bullet" to resolve the security breach problem.

"For too long, senior officials, Cabinet-level officers, have really not asked tough questions and taken this issue seriously," Kurtz said. "Until senior managers start asking the questions about risk, asking how things are secured, you don't get the necessary level of interest in securing systems."

The four largest data losses -- at the Navy, the VA, Energy and Agriculture departments -- occurred within agencies that all received Fs on the House Government Reform Committee's annual cybersecurity report card, which is based on compliance with the 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act.

Committee spokesman Rob White said the incidents could "push them to place more emphasis on their information security efforts."

Harold Gracey, a former VA CIO and now an executive consultant for the Vienna, Va.-based Topside Consulting Group, said the root of preventing data breaches is in the enforcement of policies.

"The whole government needs to become aware of how transportable data is and how powerful it can be," Gracey said. "The VA has very strict laws dating back to the pre-IT era about how veterans' information is handled. If that had been effectively carried forward into the modern age, this wouldn't be possible."

Bruce Brody, vice president for information security at the Reston, Va.-based market research firm INPUT and associate deputy assistant secretary for cyber and information security at the VA from 2001 to 2004, said agencies with low grades all have decentralized IT management structures, where no one person is in control of security.

Davis' Government Reform Committee is looking to change FISMA to include specific protocols for the disclosure of data breaches, including how to reveal breaches and how quickly to do so, according to White. Notification would become a specific responsibility for the OMB director and the heads of agencies.

Jim Flyzik, a former Treasury chief information officer who now runs his own IT consulting firm, said the rash of security breaches is not coincidental.

"We are a very reactive society and a very reactive government," Flyzik said. "We tend to put solutions in place after problems occur."

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:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


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