Symantec: Gov't needs to take new cybersecurity steps

Symantec's latest report shows that federal, state, and local government accounted for 26 percent of data breaches that could lead to identity theft in the first half of 2007

U.S. government agencies need to take additional steps to protect against cybersecurity problems after a series of congressional hearings and reports exposed several weaknesses in 2007, representatives of Symantec said.

The government sector, including state and local governments, accounted for 26 percent of data breaches that could lead to identity theft in the first half of 2007, according to Symantec's latest Government Internet Security Threat Report, published in September. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) also issued about a dozen reports in the last six months criticizing federal agencies for not fully implementing GAO's cybersecurity recommendations, noted Jim Russell, Symantec's vice president for the public sector.

In addition, the House of Representatives Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cyber Security and Science and Technology hosted a series of hearings in 2007 focused on cybersecurity lapses at several government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department.

"You look at that, and you say, 'Why does that happen?'" Russell said.

While U.S. agencies have a set of cybersecurity rules set out in the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002 (FISMA), agencies aren't held accountable when they have breaches, Russell said. Agencies don't lose funding from Congress after cybersecurity incidents, he said.

The federal cybersecurity rules don't have "a whole lot of teeth," he added.

The good news is that agencies can take more steps to fix problems, Russell said. The first step is to inventory their IT assets, a job several agencies haven't accomplished. That's not always easy, Russell said.

"Let's say I'm an agency CIO," he added. "My challenge is that my environment is so dynamic with the home workforce and telecommuting. I can see why it's a challenge to see what all the assets out there are."

Russell also called on agencies to develop comprehensive cybersecurity plans, to do systematic vulnerability testing, and to have a data backup plan and back up frequently.

Symantec expects that cybersecurity issues will come before Congress in 2008, particularly federal agency cybersecurity practices, said Kevin Richards, Symantec's federal government relations manager. This could be "the year for information security for our federal agencies," he said.

In December, Representative William Lacy Clay, a Missouri Democrat, introduced the Federal Agency Data Protection Act, which would require U.S. agencies to implement wireless data security measures. The bill would also require each U.S. agency to draft a plan to protect itself against the dangers of peer-to-peer file-trading networks, and it would give the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget new authority to establish information security policies.

Clay's bill would write into law many OMB recommendations, Richards said. "I always make the point that these are recommendations, and it's important to codify them," he said. "It seems like our federal government IT security strategy is very reactionary and not proactive."

That bill comes in addition to Federal Agency Data Breach Protection Act, which would require that federal agencies notify constituents whose data is lost or stolen. That bill, introduced last May, is sponsored by Representative Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, in the House, and Senator Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican.

Bills that would require private companies to notify customers when their personal information is stolen or lost seem to have stalled in Congress. But there still seems to be interest from lawmakers in agency cybersecurity and breach notification, Richards said. The hearings and information requests from Davis and other lawmakers are bringing to light multiple attacks and breaches at agencies, he said.

"There's no real mechanism requiring agencies to report breaches," Richards added. "Now, [lawmakers] are dedicating more resources and giving better direction."

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