Agencies push to meet IT security deadline

Office of Management and Budget memo outlines steps for agencies to improve the security of sensitive information.

Federal information security officials are struggling to comply with the June 23 Office of Management and Budget mandate requiring agencies to improve the security of personally identifiable information by Aug. 7.

The memorandum, signed by OMB Deputy Director for Management Clay Johnson, was in response to a recent rash of data breaches reported across the government.

The memo established a 45-day deadline for implementing a security checklist for protecting remote information. It also contained four OMB recommendations, including encrypting data on remote computer devices that hold sensitive information and permitting remote access only with two factors of authentication.

According to several CIOs, agency inspectors general have initiated a review of compliance with the checklist, which is based on previously established National Institute of Standards and Technology requirements. A report is expected in late September.

Brett Bobley, CIO of the National Endowment for the Humanities and co-chair of the Small Agency CIO Council, said he does not think any agency can say it meets every requirement in the OMB memo.

"Within the [past] 45 days your goal is to show your IG that you have thoroughly looked through [the] guidelines and determined where you meet it and where you don't," Bobley said. "Once you know the areas where your policies and procedures fall short, you can start to take corrective action."

While his agency does not handle a great deal of sensitive information, Bobley said his office recently issued a new policy informing staff that when they are working from home they are not allowed to store sensitive information on their home computer.

Vance Hitch, the Justice Department's chief information officer and the cybersecurity and privacy liason for the the Chief Information Officers Council, said the May 3 Veterans Affairs Department data breach changed agencies' perception of lost or stolen computers.

"In the past, people have been worried about the value of the machine," Hitch said. "Now the focus is on the real value, which is the data that could be on the machine."

The OMB checklist, while propagating few new requirements, also changed agencies' views of risks associated with personally identifiable information, Hitch said. IT security for a large organization will never be enforced uniformly, but the four recommendations have forced agencies to look for inconsistencies, Hitch said.

All agency CIOs were aware of the requirements in the OMB memo and before the memo was released, assigned a certain level of risk to them, but "maybe not a high enough level of risk," Hitch said.

"There is so much we have to protect," Hitch said. "What [the memo] has underscored is that these can be extremely costly and detrimental."

A former government official familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named, said agencies have not taken significant steps to increase the security of personal information.

"It remains to be done in earnest or across the board. There are many competing activities right now," the official said. "It sounded great, like we were going to do something about it, but this tiger is toothless."

Agencies lack an internal process for determining what information is deemed sensitive and can get around this requirement by declaring information nonsensitive, said the official, who questioned why the OMB memo applied only to mobile computing devices.

Another small agency chief information officer, who also asked not to be named so he could speak more frankly, said OMB's failure to attend a July 28 meeting of small agency CIOs to discuss the protection of sensitive information signaled that this was not a high priority.

He called OMB's recommendations trivial and said agencies should already have procedures and policies in place as part of their basic IT security practices.

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