Federal Information Systems Hit 20 Years on GAO’s High-Risk List

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The watchdog is waiting for 1,000 recommendations to be implemented.

The Government Accountability Office released an updated high-risk list of programs ripe for waste or mismanagement, and again, for the 20th year, it features federal information systems security.

“Securing these technologies is vital for the nation’s security, prosperity and well-being. Nevertheless, the security over these systems is inconsistent and additional actions are needed to address ongoing cybersecurity and privacy challenges,” GAO Information Security Issues Director Gregory Wilshusen told the House Science, Space and Technology’s research and technology subcommittee Tuesday.

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GAO released the 2017 high-risk list Wednesday and it highlights 34 areas of concern, including several technology-focused programs. The 2020 Census, for example, made the list this year for the first time because escalating costs and persistent issues with IT acquisition and implementation. The office has tracked the potential gap in weather data from satellites since 2013, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration making significant progress with its satellites while the Defense Department’s share still needs significant attention.

The watchdog also recommended signification attention be paid to federal information systems security. Over the years, GAO expanded the area to include critical cyber infrastructure and protecting personally identifiable information. In that time, the office also made 2,500 recommendations to agencies, with 1,000 yet to be implemented as of January.

“Many agencies continue to be challenged in safeguarding their computer systems and information in part because many of these recommendations have not been implemented,” Wilshusen said.

So why aren’t agencies taking up the recommendations?

Some recommendations simply take a long time to implement, Wilshusen told the subcommittee. Other times, agencies address issues in some systems but not all. GAO also found agency security tests and processes rely more on interviews than digging into systems to verify or correct configurations.

“Another factor is that agencies will often close out a recommendation as implemented when they come up with a plan to implement and not necessarily take the action needed to across the enterprise,” he said.

GAO’s goal is to not have a high-risk list at all, but until then, the office measure areas against five criteria: leadership commitment, capacity, action plan, monitoring and demonstrated progress. This year, only one area—sharing and managing terrorism-related information—improved enough to be removed from the list.