recommended reading

After Dodging the Bullet that Hit OPM, Interior ‘Owns’ Up to Cyber Problem

Third from left, Sylvia Burns, Interior CIO, testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform committee's hearing on the Office of Personnel Management data breach.

Third from left, Sylvia Burns, Interior CIO, testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform committee's hearing on the Office of Personnel Management data breach. // Cliff Owen/AP

Sometimes, fear is the best motivator. At the Interior Department, this was the case when hackers stole millions of federal employee records from an Office of Personnel Management database stored inside one of Interior's data centers. The assailants left Interior's data unscathed.

But point taken, Interior Chief Information Officer Sylvia Burns said Wednesday afternoon.

The incident, part of a historic hack against the U.S. government, prompted the department to expedite a goal of eliminating wimpy passwords as the only safeguard when signing in to agency systems.

The intruders, suspected Chinese spies, used a stolen password from an OPM contractor to copy OPM's database, according to federal officials. From OPM's network, the bad guys then scampered across the entire Interior facility's IT environment, Burns said. All other data, however, was not compromised, she said.

"When I, as a CIO for the department, learned of the intrusion, it was horrifying to me and since that time, my team and I have been on high alert working probably seven days a week, long hours to take our lessons learned and do a mitigation plan around it," Burns said.

Still, Burns clearly has her work cut out for her. Results of an information security audit presented to lawmakers Wednesday laid out thousands of security vulnerabilities in Interior’s public websites.

The White House in 2004 first mandated all federal system logins require the use of both a password and a smart card, a process known as two-factor authentication.  

"That's an important control that's needed. We were already working on it," Burns told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday. "We were making slow progress. When the incident happened, it just created a different lens on looking at the need, and I think it made it crystal clear to everybody why it was so critical that we achieve two-factor authentication."

The attackers stole the OPM password from a "privileged user," an individual granted wide access to a system's configurations and information, Burns said. No government smart card, or "personal identity verification," card was necessary.

"That's why we were aggressive about moving to getting all of our privileged users using their PIV cards to authenticate to their systems," Burns said.

By June 26, all privileged users needed smart cards to sign on to Interior systems. Orders from up above gave the department an extra push.

On June 12, the White House told all agencies to accelerate the activation of two-step identification and lay down other data protections, as part of a 30-day cybersecurity sprint.

Today, at least 75 percent of regular Interior computer users also log in with smart cards and passwords, Burns said.

The hearing was one of half a dozen held in response to the OPM attack now known to have affected 21.5 million federal personnel, individuals vetted for handling U.S. secrets, and their family members.

Under pressure from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, OPM Director Katherine Archuleta resigned last week, without ever acknowledging accountability.

Burns on Wednesday took responsibility for her department’s information security weaknesses.

Separate from the OPM incident, an Interior inspector general recently identified 3,000 "critical" and "high-risk" vulnerabilities in the department's publicly-facing websites. They have since been fixed, but other security holes likely lay unknown, waiting to be discovered by intruders.

The number of vulnerabilities "could potentially" be higher because the department does not perform scans of all systems, Deputy IG Mary Kendall said at the hearing.

"We have to all own this problem and it will take all of us to fix the problem, “Burns said of the cybersecurity dilemma in general, across her department's distributed bureaus and offices. “And everybody has been taking it seriously, so I’m very gratified by that.”

Threatwatch Alert

Thousands of cyber attacks occur each day

See the latest threats

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Close [ x ] More from Nextgov
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from Nextgov.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • It’s Time for the Federal Government to Embrace Wireless and Mobility

    The United States has turned a corner on the adoption of mobile phones, tablets and other smart devices, outpacing traditional desktop and laptop sales by a wide margin. This issue brief discusses the state of wireless and mobility in federal government and outlines why now is the time to embrace these technologies in government.

    View
  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

    View
  • A New Security Architecture for Federal Networks

    Federal government networks are under constant attack, and the number of those attacks is increasing. This issue brief discusses today's threats and a new model for the future.

    View
  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

    View
  • Software-Defined Networking

    So many demands are being placed on federal information technology networks, which must handle vast amounts of data, accommodate voice and video, and cope with a multitude of highly connected devices while keeping government information secure from cyber threats. This issue brief discusses the state of SDN in the federal government and the path forward.

    View
  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

    View

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.