Energy told to tighten cybersecurity policies

IG audit identifies significant issues that could leave classified information vulnerable.

The Energy Department's inspector general on Thursday released an audit of the department's certification and accreditation procedures for national security information systems that revealed a number of potentially serious weaknesses.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Auditors concluded that the problems were similar to those that led to the theft of classified information at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2006. "In our judgment, the findings in the report suggest the department could be at risk for similar diversions," they wrote.

Specifically, auditors found that the department had not fully developed and implemented adequate cybersecurity policies, and federal and contractor officials did not always use effective mechanisms to monitor the performance of security controls.

Auditors reviewed 65 systems at six major sites, the locations of which were omitted from the public version of the report for security reasons. The systems were managed by various components of Energy, including the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Office of Environmental Management and the Office of Science. Many of the systems reviewed were not appropriately certified and accredited for operation.

Inspectors found that information security officers for 31 of the 56 systems reviewed at five of the sites were granted system administrator access in violation of department policies. Such an arrangement is an inadequate separation of duties that essentially allows employees to supervise and approve their own work, which is why the practice is prohibited. What's more, the practice could be far more widespread, since officials at two sites told auditors similar situations existed for many of their systems that weren't selected for review.

Auditors also found that classified and unclassified systems were operating in the same environment at some locations, which raised the possibility that classified data could be transferred to unclassified computer systems. Additionally, employees at one site were allowed to manually change computer-generated passwords without oversight. User-created passwords are more vulnerable than computer-generated ones, which is why they are not permitted on national security systems.

Besides system risks, auditors found weaknesses in security and contingency planning. One of the most significant problems was that several sites did not have accurate inventories of hardware associated with and permitted for use with various systems.

"As a demonstration of the harm that can be caused by unapproved devices, we specifically identified an unapproved network device during our previous review at the Los Alamos National Laboratory that may have contributed to a significant theft of classified information," auditors noted.

The IG report recommended that Energy update its policies to reflect current security requirements. It also said the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, undersecretary of Energy and undersecretary for science should immediately implement controls to protect classified information systems.

Energy officials concurred. Auditors modified other recommendations after program officials provided more technical data.

"Without improvements, the department lacks assurance that its classified data and systems are secure from both internal and external threats," the auditors wrote.