How to Avoid the IRS' Technology Fumbles

John Koskinen, IRS Commisioner

John Koskinen, IRS Commisioner House subcommittee on Oversight and Reform

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Groups says it all boils down to an IT management issue.

The Internal Revenue Service has had difficulty accounting for a hard drive it says it destroyed and backup tapes that may or may not have been saved -- a situation that has sounded security alarms for some who see information technology management problems throughout government.

“You can’t secure what you don’t know that you have,” said Barbara Rembiesa, president of the International Association of Information Technology Asset Managers, Inc., a professional association that offers certifications and best practices in IT management.

Rembiesa has called for a governmentwide solution to IT problems that the IRS is not the only agency to face.

“Each agency is going to have their technology piece a little different but the actual processes -- their documentation, their disposal, acquisitions -- all of those processes should be under one governing agency,” she told Nextgov. “The government cannot operate without technology, so they need to be managing that technology as a government.”

The IRS last month infuriated Republicans when it said it had lost about two years' worth of archived emails belonging to Lois Lerner, formerly the head of the agency's tax-exempt division, which has been accused of targeting conservative groups for unfair scrutiny. The emails were saved on her computer’s hard drive, which was wiped clean -- degaussed -- and sent to a recycling contractor after crashing in 2011, the agency said in court documents filed Friday. No certificate of destruction has been made public -- documentation Rembiesa said the agency should have had.

The emails had been saved on temporary back-up disks that were written over about six months later, officials have said. But IRS Deputy Associate Chief Counsel Thomas Kane told congressional investigators last week the tapes may still exist.  

“They need to start securing this data and they need to get a handle on managing technology assets," Rembiesa said. "Technology’s here to stay.”

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told lawmakers Wednesday in response to their subpoenas, the agency had produced nearly 1 million documents to congressional committees cleared to see taxpayer information and more than 700,000 redacted documents for other committees.

Rembiesa noted the agency is not the first to be in the spotlight for its technology blunders. The FBI lost over 150 laptops in 2007, including 10 with classified information, and every administration since the advent of email has lost some of them. 

“I think if you go into just about any agency and ask them to provide something like this they would have trouble,” she said. Employee training and better communication about policies and best practices are the first steps she would take right now to begin to remedy the problem, she added. 

The agency on Monday said it was “refreshing IRS employees’ awareness of existing policies and procedures” for handling sensitive information as it sought a contractor to help properly dispose of thousands of hard drives and other storage devices amassed since 2008.

Koskinen last month described the agency’s IT system as a "Model T with a very nice GPS system and a sound system and a redone engine, but it’s still a Model T."

Rembiesa said this case is more about management than technology.