Cybersecurity and IT Remain Top Concerns on GAO’s High-Risk List

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Agencies showed some slight progress on IT issues, though cybersecurity took a step backward in the latest report.

The Government Accountability Office released its biennial list of high-risk government programs. Federal IT and cybersecurity issues remained on the list, with the latter getting worse since the last report.

“Our overall conclusion is that there’s been limited progress in the majority of the high-risk areas,” Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, who leads GAO, said Tuesday in a House Oversight and Reform hearing.

Beyond IT issues, there were a number of changes to GAO’s biennial list. The bulk of the list remained the same from report to report, but five risk areas got worse—including cybersecurity—while seven improved. One area—the Defense Department’s Support Infrastructure Management—improved to the point of graduating from the list.

“Among other things, DOD has more efficiently utilized military installation space; reduced its infrastructure footprint and use of leases, reportedly saving millions of dollars; and improved its use of installation agreements, reducing base support costs,” the report states.

GAO also added two new high-risk areas: National Efforts to Prevent, Respond to and Recover from Drug Misuse; and Emergency Loans for Small Businesses, which were issued to help businesses through the pandemic but have shown “evidence of fraud and significant program integrity risks.”

While federal IT and cybersecurity only account for two issues on the high-risk list, they were both a major concern of lawmakers, who focused on these issues throughout the hearings.

Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., asked about the relationship between perennial issues on the list and a lack of IT modernization.

“There are clearly cases of that. It’s not universal,” Dodaro said, citing Veterans Affairs and Defense departments as examples. “There clearly is an interrelationship between the lack of ability to modernize” and persistent high-risk designations.

Ensuring the Cybersecurity of the Nation

While 2020 was a tough year for federal cybersecurity—from relatively minor breaches to one of the largest hacking campaigns in history—government efforts remained steady for four out of five metrics. Cybersecurity efforts stayed flat at “partially met” for demonstrated progress, monitoring, action plan and capacity.

However, GAO docked the previous administration under “leadership commitment,” citing the “elimination of the White House cybersecurity coordinator position in May 2018.” That metric fell from “met” to “partially met.”

Without that leadership position “it had remained unclear what official within the executive branch is to ultimately be responsible for coordinating the execution of the implementation plan and holding federal agencies accountable for the plan’s nearly 200 activities moving forward,” the report states. Lawmakers passed a bill in January establishing an official White House office “to be headed by a Senate-confirmed National Cyber Director and is to, among other things, coordinate cybersecurity policy and operations across the executive branch.”

While the report does not call out the SolarWinds campaign by name, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, noted the lack of leadership in both preparation and response to the hack.

“My own bias is that’s one of our big problems: that we don’t have accountability or coordination that we need,” Portman said Tuesday in a call with reporters. “One thing we need central, coordinating authority for is to make sure agencies are on track.”

Dodaro told reporters the oversight agency is working on a standalone report on the SolarWinds incident, which will include specific recommendations. But the high-risk list does get to the heart of a major concern brought up by the big hack: IT supply chain issues.

“In our report, we talk about the weaknesses in the IT supply chain, which was one of the problems that led to the SolarWinds attack,” Dodaro said, putting IT supply chain on the same level as leadership issues. “We made 145 recommendations to agencies to implement better practices to manage their IT supply chains—that goes to the heart of the SolarWinds incident.”

Further, the federal cybersecurity workforce is understaffed and under-skilled across the board, according to the report.

“None of the 24 Chief Financial Officers Act agencies have fully implemented best practices for information technology or cybersecurity workforce planning, including ensuring staff have the skills to address cybersecurity risks and challenges in areas such as industrial control systems supporting the electric grid and avionics cybersecurity,” the report states. “Agencies’ limited implementation of these activities has been due, in part, to not making IT/cybersecurity workforce planning a priority, although laws and guidance have called for them to do so for more than 20 years.”

More broadly, the report also calls out the need for federal data privacy policies, specifically with regard to “the collection, use and sale of personal information by private-sector companies” and “the commercial use of facial recognition technology, including the identifying and tracking of individuals.”

Improving the Management of IT Acquisitions and Operations

While IT supply chain is a significant cybersecurity issue, acquisition of new technologies and maintenance of expensive, aging legacy systems continues to be its own category on the list.

Recent actions by Congress and the White House have brought progress, according to GAO. The report highlights the establishment of the Technology Modernization Fund and—for a few agencies—working capital funds specifically for IT upgrades.

GAO also called out increased use of the Office of Management and Budget’s PortfolioStat review process, which has “achieved about $2.7 billion in savings from fiscal years 2012 to 2018” with another $3 billion in savings to be realized.

Last year, GAO identified 10 of the “most critical legacy systems” in need of modernization.

“Of the 10 agencies responsible for these legacy systems, seven agencies had documented plans for modernizing the systems,” the report states. “However, most lacked the key elements identified in best practices—milestones, a description of the work necessary to complete the modernization and a plan for the disposition of the legacy system. The remaining three agencies did not have documented modernization plans.”

The report’s authors cited past GAO attempts to identify these issues.

“We made eight recommendations to eight agencies to address these weaknesses and, as of December 2020, none had been implemented,” the report states.

Agencies have made progress in some areas, including additional closing and consolidating of data centers, 16 of 20 agencies completing recommendations to improve tracking of IT contracts and progress meeting congressional mandates under the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act, or FITARA.

However, the report urges OMB and the rest of the government to address the 400 open recommendations.

“OMB and agencies need to take actions to (1) implement at least 80% of our open recommendations related to the management of IT acquisitions and operations and (2) achieve at least 80% of the over $6 billion in planned PortfolioStat savings,” GAO officials wrote. “Lastly, agencies should consider applying effective practices that may better position them to implement FITARA provisions and realize IT management improvements and cost savings.”

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