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Agencies struggling to meet cybersecurity reporting requirement

Inadequate resources and unpredictable threats will make it difficult for federal agencies to meet a new computer security reporting requirement that is just six months away, according to a key federal chief information officer. Computer security has been an important issue since the passage of the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act, which required agencies to appoint chief information officers. But the 1999 Government Information Security Reform Act mandates annual program reviews and audits of information security practices by agency inspectors general. The law requires agencies to submit the first round of their security plans to the Office of Management and Budget by September 2001, and to have programs in place by October 2002. "One of the challenges is the lack of detailed information on the threat we are defending against and the constant evolution of our information systems infrastructure," said Jim Flyzik, the Treasury Department's CIO and outgoing vice chair of the federal CIO Council, in an interview Wednesday. "It is difficult to accurately predict the exact composition of our future systems, let alone the people or technology that may attempt to wreak havoc on them." Flyzik stepped down as vice chair of the CIO Council Wednesday. Despite the difficulty in forecasting computer security threats, Flyzik said October 2002 is a realistic deadline to get a security program in place, and was confident Treasury will meet it. "It will be challenging, but speaking for Treasury, we expect to be able to comply with the deadlines. Obviously the plan we produce will only be as good as the information available and the time to produce the plan," said Flyzik. Chief information officers and inspectors general play major roles in complying with the security reform act. CIOs need to be flexible and inspectors general need to be realistic when they implement their security programs, Flyzik said. "For the CIOs, concentrate on flexibility and cooperation. Realize that we are in the business of risk management in a constantly changing situation. "For the IGs, I would recommend a sense of realism that says the only system free of risk is the one that is never turned on. Our job is not risk avoidance, but risk management," he said. Agencies also need to allocate adequate resources to comply with the act. "There was no appropriation of additional funds when this law was passed," said Felipe Alonso, a partner in the information risk management practice at KPMG. "Agencies must give more priority to security issues than they have in the past, with resources they already have." In December 2000, the CIO Council, OMB, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released their framework for evaluating information technology systems. The guidance helps agencies determine the status of their security systems and identify any existing weaknesses. Earlier this month, NIST released a self-assessment questionnaire aimed at helping agencies pinpoint weaknesses in their security programs. Last fall, Rep. Stephen Horn, R-Calif., chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations, rated the 24 major federal agencies' computer security systems, giving them an overall grade of D-minus. In October 2000, GAO sharply criticized federal computer security efforts, after it successfully hacked into several agencies' computer systems.