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GAO faults disaster recovery plan for critical networks

The Homeland Security Department has not developed an effective way to ensure that critical national infrastructure, such as electrical grids and telecommunications networks, can bounce back from a disaster, government auditors have found.

In response to criticism from lawmakers and private-industry officials, DHS has emphasized the need for critical infrastructure to be resilient, meaning it has the ability to absorb and recover from a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

Critical infrastructure generally refers to structures and systems, whether physical or virtual, that are vital to national security, economic security, and public health.

The department has conducted surveys and vulnerability assessments of critical infrastructure to identify gaps, but has not developed a way to measure whether owners and operators of that infrastructure adopt measures to reduce risks, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released Monday.

"DHS's efforts to incorporate resiliency into the programs it uses to work with asset owners and operators is evolving, but program management could be strengthened," GAO wrote.

To that end, GAO recommended that Homeland Security officials "develop performance measures to assess the extent to which asset owners and operators are taking actions to resolve resiliency gaps identified during the various vulnerability assessments."

The department said in a letter to GAO that it agreed with the recommendations and is reviewing new performance standards to assess actions taken by the owners and operators of critical infrastructure.

GAO also recommended that DHS could do a better job disseminating information about resiliency practices to owners and operators across critical infrastructure sectors. But GAO recognized some problems in doing so, such as concerns some private companies might have that their proprietary information would be shared.

"We recognize that DHS faces barriers to sharing information it gathers on resiliency practices within and among sectors," GAO wrote. "However, as the primary federal agency responsible for coordinating and enhancing the protection and resiliency of critical infrastructure across the spectrum of [infrastructure] sectors, DHS is uniquely positioned to disseminate this information, which would be consistent with the [government's] emphasis on information sharing."

The department said it would need to discuss that recommendation in more detail before responding to GAO.

GAO also noted that DHS is training security specialists to work with owners and operators. But the department has not adequately defined the roles and responsibilities for the specialists. The department said it agreed with GAO and is updating its guidance for specialists.

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