OMB: Information security incidents spike 60 percent

Increase is "not necessarily a bad thing," says administration's top IT official. Results reflect better detection of threats but call into question the effectiveness of certifying agencies' information security.

The number of information security incidents reported by federal agencies jumped from 5,146 in fiscal 2006 to 12,986 last year, with a 70 percent increase in unauthorized access to federal networks alone, according to a report from the Office of Management released Saturday.

Comment on this article in the forum.The results -- which also show a sharp increase in reports of improper usage due mostly to a security breach at the Veteran Affairs Department -- reflect better detection of threats, but also call into question the effectiveness of systems for certifying agencies' information security.

OMB submitted its fiscal 2007 report on the implementation of the 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act to Congress Friday. Under the law, chief information officers and inspectors general are required to conduct annual reviews of their agencies' information security programs.

FISMA also requires agencies to document and implement procedures for detecting, reporting, and responding to security incidents, and to notify the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team when they occur. According to the report, agencies documented 2,321 incidents of unauthorized access in fiscal 2007, up from 706 in 2006, and 3,305 incidents of improper usage of networks, compared to 638 the previous year. Two-thirds of the latter jump stemmed from incidents at the VA.

"It's not necessarily that it's a bad thing you're seeing the numbers going up," said Karen Evans, OMB's administrator of electronic government and information technology. "Agencies are sharing the information with US-CERT the way they're supposed to. You want to encourage reporting, [so that] when we hear 'I lost my thumb drive and it wasn't encrypted,' we can put contracts in place that allow agencies to buy the tools for data encryption at discount prices. That was done governmentwide and allowed agencies to move very fast."

The number of incidents deemed unconfirmed and warranting further review also increased dramatically, from 912 to 4,056. Evans partially attributed this to improved reporting as well.

"The fact that the number [of incidents] is going up does not reflect worse security, it reflects worse attacks," said Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, a nonprofit cybersecurity research organization in Bethesda, Md. "The attacks are more sophisticated."

The report also showed that 92 percent of the total of 10,304 federal information systems are certified and accredited, compared to 88 percent in 2006. This marks a milestone for OMB, which has set a goal of a 90 percent certification rate since 2002, but never met it until now. In addition, 86 percent of systems' security controls and 85 percent of contingency plans -- in case of an outage -- have been properly tested. Of systems assigned a high-risk impact level, indicating they require great degree of security, 77 percent had tested contingency plans.

But Paller does not necessarily see an increase in certification and accreditation as a good thing, noting that one cabinet-level agency earned the highest possible marks at the same time it was reporting a "massive number" of successful attacks.

"The reality is that the number of certified and accredited [systems] has absolutely nothing to do with security. I'd go as far to say it has a negative effect, because the rationale is 'we got a high grade, we don't need to spend any more money on this.' "

Members of Congress also expressed concern with the reliance on certification and accreditation for judging system security during a recent hearing. Evans said that OMB is trying to work with the National Institute of Technology and Standards and Technology to develop new metrics for evaluating information security.

To Paller, money could be better spent. "It costs on the order of $50,000 per system to do one of those [system reviews], and on average fewer than 8 percent are ever even read by anyone that can do anything with them," he said. "Agencies are spending this large chunk of money for report writing, rather than using it to actually secure the systems."

The report also showed an overall decrease in the percentage of employees receiving security awareness training between 2006 and 2007, from 91 percent to 85 percent.