Malicious code in the IT supply chain threatens federal operations

Web of multinational vendors obscures software origins, poses national security threat, GAO says.

Agencies that deal with national security data and programs must do more to secure their information technology supply chains, a government watchdog said Friday.

Federal agencies aren't required to track "the extent to which their telecommunications networks contain foreign-developed equipment, software or services," the Government Accountability Office report said, and they typically are aware only of the IT vendors nearest to them on the supply chain, not the numerous vendors downstream.

That has left IT systems at the Energy, Homeland Security and Justice departments more vulnerable to malicious or counterfeit software installed by other nations' intelligence agencies or by nonstate actors and hackers.

U.S. enemies could use that malicious software to secretly pull information from government systems, erase or alter information on those systems, or even take control of them remotely.

The Justice Department has identified measures to protect its supply chain but has not developed procedures to implement those measures, the report said. Energy and Homeland Security haven't identified measures to protect their supply chains at all, according to GAO.

The watchdog agency also examined the Defense Department, which it said had designed and effectively implemented a supply chain risk management program.

Defense has reduced its supply chain risk through a series of pilot programs and expects to have "full operational capability for supply chain risk management" by 2016, the report said. Those pilots focus both on assessing the risk posed by particular vendors' supply chains and on testing and evaluating the purchased systems for malicious components, GAO said.

The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team inside DHS has found that about one-fourth of roughly 43,000 agency-reported security incidents during fiscal 2011 involved malicious code that could have been installed somewhere along the supply chain, GAO said.

Globally sourced IT hardware buys can prove embarrassing for agencies that deal with national security data even if there's no malicious or counterfeit technology inside the machines.

The Air Force Special Operations Command, for instance, canceled a planned iPad acquisition in February, two days after receiving a query from Nextgov about Russian-developed security and document reading software specified in the procurement documents.

Tracking the origins of federal technology has been complicated by the complex ownership structures of multinational IT suppliers, which sometimes are owned in one nation, source their IT in another nation and manufacture it in a third nation, GAO said.

The report recommended that Energy and Homeland Security officials develop and implement firm procedures to protect against supply chain threats. The watchdog recommended that all three departments develop monitoring procedures to ensure their supply chain management practices are effective. The departments largely agreed with GAO's assessments, the report said.