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Cybersecurity ranks as top concern in federal CIO survey

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Protecting government information from cyberattacks is the issue that weighs most heavily on the minds of federal chief information officers, according to a new survey.

One-fifth of respondents to the 22nd annual TechAmerica/Grant Thornton LLP Federal CIO Survey mentioned cybersecurity as their top concern, ranking it ahead of controlling costs, human capital, governmentwide IT modernization efforts and mobility. George DelPrete, principal of Grant Thornton and chairman of the survey, unveiled the results Thursday in Washington.

Forty information technology officials from 35 federal organizations, including federal CIO Steven VanRoekel, responded to the questionnaire, which was administered by TechAmerica member firms. Comments in the survey were not for attribution.

CIOs criticized the government’s “inconsistently applied” security framework, lamenting that “quality is all over the place.” In fact, the role of federal CIOs is inconsistent and poorly defined, respondents said. They added they did not feel empowered to offer innovative IT services.

In many federal agencies, one person does not “own” every cybersecurity process. Tasks are decentralized and farmed out to various units, creating security holes. Respondents talked about the importance of centralizing cybersecurity through initiatives such as the Defense Department’s Global Information Grid, a worldwide data network that links every service, software and piece of equipment that transmits Defense information.

Centralizing IT operations is easier said than done, however, said participants in a panel discussion. “We’re down to 166 data centers,” Health and Human Services Department Deputy CIO John Teeter joked during Thursday’s TechAmerica event, drawing laughter from the audience.

Despite their stated top concern, 54 percent of respondents said their top objective was cost control. They named consolidating redundant systems and canceling underperforming IT projects as the most effective cost-reducing methods. Across-the-board budget cuts would be the least effective, yet would also be the most feasible method for the federal government, respondents said.

DelPrete acknowledged the increasingly prevalent threat of cyberattacks, adding that hacktivist collective Anonymous had launched a denial-of-service attack against TechAmerica in April while the industry group was compiling the survey.

Respondents emphasized that mobility and increased innovation should not be delayed, even as federal IT departments continue to face budget cuts.

“Without additional investments, most CIOs feel like they’re working on fumes,” DelPrete said.

Roger Baker, assistant secretary for IT management and chief information officer at the Veterans Affairs Department, said federal officials might not be thinking properly about technological innovations like mobility because they often frame discussions in the context of what constitutes the least risk.

“If you look at the way we design new systems, they tend toward what we know, because it’s lower risk from our perspective,” Baker said during the panel. “We are going to be behind on mobility for the rest of our natural lives, from a federal government CIO standpoint, and we’re just going to have to live with it.”

Indeed, 53 percent of survey respondents stated they did not believe federal IT structures are flexible enough for controlling costs and welcoming innovation.

Respondents gave mediocre grades to the Office of Management and Budget’s 25-point plan for federal IT reform, awarding the program a “C+” in feasibility and a “C” in progress to date, value and leader commitment. Nevertheless, respondents still viewed the plan, first released in December 2010, as a positive force for IT revitalization, with one calling it “a cookbook of good ideas.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly attributed quotes from George DelPrete to Shawn Osborne. Additionally, hacktivist group Anonymous launched a denial-of-service attack against TechAmerica in April, and did not “gain access” into the group.

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Denial-of-service attack

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