Agencies’ cybersecurity scores on the rise

The federal government's latest cybersecurity report card shows improvement in protecting electronic information, but the Homeland Security and Defense departments still earned dismal marks.

The Justice Department jumped from a D last year to an A- on the new assessment, released Thursday by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. And the Housing and Urban Development Department jumped from a D+ to an A+.

Overall, four agencies received an A+ this time, and another seven received a B or better.

"Obviously, challenges remain," Davis said. "But there are some excellent signs of progress in this year's report, and that's encouraging."

The governmentwide grade on the report card, which covers fiscal 2006, was a C-, marking an improvement over a D+ for the previous year.

The Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Interior, State and Treasury departments, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, flunked. The Homeland Security Department received a D, up from an F last year.

NASA, which fell from B- in fiscal 2005 to D- for fiscal 2006, and the Education Department, which fell from C- in fiscal 2005 to F on the latest report card, showed the biggest declines.

The Veterans Affairs Department, an agency under intense scrutiny for its information security practices, failed to submit a fiscal 2006 report on its compliance with the 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act. Because the grades are based on compliance with that law, Davis could not assign VA a mark for fiscal 2006. The agency received an F for fiscal 2005.

"Sometimes it's better to take the incomplete than take the F," Davis said. "We worry about a cyber Pearl Harbor. It is troubling that some of the agencies on the front line are not."

Davis said he is exploring ways to provide agencies with incentives to keep security in mind while configuring their systems. One possibility would be to tie the grades to the appropriations process, he said. For example, "bonus points could be awarded to agencies that move to Microsoft Vista and take steps toward secure configurations," Davis said.

The grades stem partly from annual tests of information security action plans and milestones or corrective action plans. Agencies are also rated on whether or not they certify and accredit their systems as secure, how well they manage the configuration of their computers to ensure security, how they detect and react to security breaches, their training programs and the accuracy of their inventories.

A major reason for HUD's move to an A+ was its thorough inventory of its information security equipment. The agency also showed improvement in nearly all categories.

Davis said the latest reports showed that agencies have more systems and that annual testing of security controls and contingency plans all increased. Slightly more systems were certified and accredited as secure, and agencies' reporting of breaches or other security incidents has improved dramatically, he said.

But agencies need to make more progress in developing effective security plans and milestones, Davis said.

Alan Paller, director of research for the SANS Institute and a frequent critic of the FISMA process, said that creating incentives for agencies to improve their grades "opens the door to huge improvements in federal information security."

He said that incentives could persuade agencies to implement new OMB-mandated secure configurations. Previously, Paller criticized the report card process because agencies were spending their computer security funding producing reports mandated under the law, using up funds that could have been put toward securing their computer systems.

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