GAO, Navy add to growing list of federal data breaches

By Daniel Pulliam

June 26, 2006

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."

By Daniel Pulliam

June 26, 2006