Watchdog agency cites flaws in DHS cybersecurity program

More energy should go into predicting and preventing future attacks, GAO says.

The Homeland Security Department must strengthen a team that monitors federal computer networks and fully address weaknesses identified during a 2006 cybersecurity drill, a Government Accountability Office official testified during a House hearing on Tuesday.

Comment on this article in The Forum.The United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team could do a better job of "monitoring network activity, analyzing information and investigating anomalies to determine whether they are threats, warning appropriate officials with timely and actionable threat and mitigation information, and responding to the threat," David Powner, director of information technology management issues at GAO, told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, and Science and Technology.

The DHS team, established in 2003 to analyze cyber threats and disseminate warning information, has failed to conduct predictive cyber analysis to identify and protect against future threats, encourage information sharing among government and private sector entities, and manage its workload, Powner testified.

Homeland Security plans to fix these shortcomings through enhancements to Einstein, an automated system that collects, correlates, analyzes and shares computer security information with US-CERT, wrote Jerald Levine, director of the Homeland Security GAO Liaison Office, in response to a report (GAO-08-855) accompanying the testimony.

"We recognize that cyber threats are growing and are increasing in sophistication and accuracy," Levine stated. "US-CERT is continuously working to establish more effective outcome measures that will inform our program delivery and focus our resources on the most prevalent and highest risk issues."

GAO also criticized Homeland Security for failing to address vulnerabilities highlighted during the original February 2006 Cyber Storm exercise. The drill, which simulated a large-scale cyberattack involving federal, state and foreign governments, and private industry, identified eight areas that needed improvement: interagency coordination, contingency planning, risk assessment, assigned roles and responsibilities, integrated detection and response, access to information, strategic communications and the exercise itself.

"While DHS has demonstrated progress in addressing the lessons it learned from its first Cyber Storm exercise, more remains to be done to fully address the lessons," GAO stated in a second report (GAO-08-825).

Of the 66 remedial steps outlined, Homeland Security has completed 43, started 16 and planned seven, according to the September report. While DHS has set deadlines for its planned activities, it has not established goals for completing its ongoing efforts.

Unfinished measures include establishing secure communications with international partners, coordinating standard procedures for information sharing and analysis, developing an emergency continuity of operations plan, and enforcing proper protocol for classified information.

"Until DHS schedules and completes its planned corrective activities, the agency risks wasting resources on subsequent exercises that repeat the lessons it learned in its first exercise," the report stated. Cyber Storm II was conducted in March 2008.

In response, Homeland Security officials noted that certain activities are best addressed incrementally. This is particularly true of corrective actions that require coordination with stakeholders outside the department, they said.