New hacker techniques threaten agencies

With hackers constantly concocting new types of malicious software, government agencies are struggling to stay abreast of the latest threats, according to testimony released Thursday by federal auditors.

One new trick that intruders are trying involves a covert form of "malware" called a rootkit. A rootkit remains dormant, invisible to the user and even the computer's operating system, while gaining access to information in the computer and any network connected to the computer.

"[T]he purpose of the rootkit is to jimmy the door or make a key to the house that no one else knows that you have, so you can gain entry," said Jim Butterworth, the director of incident response at Guidance Software, a computer investigation firm. "It's a significant threat to all government agencies."

While rootkits can be outwitted by users and sophisticated technical protections, including a tool offered by Guidance, agencies are not fully executing their defense strategies, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO-07-751T).

User training is critical to combating threats, Butterworth said. "A lot of times it is human error that results in an intrusion. It is accidental. ... It is unintentional."

He added that checking Web-based mail or surfing the Internet could open a computer to a rootkit. Thumb drives, too, can become conduits for malware. Butterworth urged agencies to mitigate the danger posed by removable devices by disabling USB ports on all employee computers, except ports used for required work-related purposes.

The 2010 decennial census, where household data will be collected by using handheld computers, presents a particular cyber-security challenge.

The census "is a nightmare," Butterworth said. "If you are going to hire armies of people to go hit the street, [do not give] them modems and virtual private network access to pump information back into the infrastructure. ... No Bluetooth, no Wi-Fi [wireless technologies]. Those are vulnerable."

He said the Census Bureau should focus on developing secure transmission mechanisms along the entire data route -- during collection, transfer, processing and archiving.

In discussing government-wide information security overall, Butterworth said he "would praise the agencies for being aware that the threat exists and taking steps to develop policies; I would criticize the agencies for understaffing, under-funding and not following through on policy enforcement. Policy without enforcement is useless."

In fiscal 2006, 21 of 24 major agencies cited weak information security controls, GAO noted. The underlying cause was a failure to fully implement agency-wide information security programs.

"Significant information security weaknesses continue to place federal agencies at risk," the report states. Until agencies carry out their information security programs, "federal data and systems will not be sufficiently safeguarded to prevent unauthorized use, disclosure and modification."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

    Download
  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

    Download
  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

    Download
  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

    Download
  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

    Download
  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

    Download
  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.

    Download

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