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White House’s Annual Cyber Report Counts 30,000 Incidents but Only 16 are 'Major'

Maksim Kabakou/

Federal agencies have made solid progress securing their sensitive data against malicious hackers and employee lapses, but there’s still a long road ahead, according to a recently released White House report.

More than 30,000 data security incidents compromised federal information systems during the 2016 fiscal year, 16 of which were categorized as major incidents that needed to be reported to Congress, according to the White House’s 2016 Federal Information Security Management Act report released March 10.

That includes 10 major incidents at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in which employees improperly downloaded citizens’ personal information onto thumb drives and other removable media. FDIC responded to the incidents with new technology that prevents employees from downloading data to removable media except in limited circumstances.

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Other major incidents included an attacker who tried to generate PINs to access Internal Revenue Service taxpayer information and an error at the Housing and Urban Development Department that exposed personal information, including Social Security numbers, on the public web.

Because of a methodological change in how the government tracks cyber incidents, there’s no apples-to-apples comparison between the 2016 fiscal year figures and previous years, acting federal Chief Information Security Officer Grant Schneider said in a blog post.

FISMA, which requires annual reports on cybersecurity metrics from agencies’ inspectors general, is the government’s main benchmark for cybersecurity protections.

Some federal technologists have criticized the reports for using out-of-date metrics that pay too little attention to vulnerabilities created by mobile devices and other technology. Others say the reviews encourage box checking rather than active and innovative cyber defense.

Nearly 90 percent of privileged users across the federal government are using secure, multifactor authentication tools to connect to sensitive data, according to the report. That’s up from 78 percent the previous year, but still far short of the government’s 100-percent goal.

Just over 80 percent of unprivileged users are meeting the same benchmark, up from 62 percent the prior year, but short of the government’s 85 percent goal.

More than 70 percent of agencies have installed advanced anti-phishing and malware detection tools, the report said.

Agency scores for hardware and software security and secure configuration held relatively steady during 2016, the report found, though all continue to lag behind government goals.

Agencies’ vulnerability management improved significantly during the reporting period from 70 percent implementation to 90 percent implementation. That still falls short of the government’s 95-percent implementation goal.

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