Progress is slow on cybersecurity goals, GAO reports

A lack of clear roles and responsibilities has hindered advances on President Obama's strategy for safeguarding computer networks, officials tell watchdog.

The White House's failure to assign agencies cybersecurity roles and responsibilities has slowed efforts to implement President Obama's plan for protecting computer networks, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

Of 24 recommendations in the president's May 2009 cyber policy review, only two have been fully implemented, GAO said. Those are the appointments of an official to coordinate cybersecurity policies and activities and an official to oversee privacy and civil liberties.

The 22 remaining recommendations have been only partially implemented, according to the report (GAO-11-24). For example, the plan for managing identities in cyberspace, which would help ensure people, organizations and computers are what they claim to be on the Internet, remains in draft form, though the Obama administration expects to finalize it this month. Also, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is establishing a framework that defines areas worthy of further research and development, but it's not expected to be complete until 2011.

Officials from key agencies involved in cybersecurity efforts, including the Defense and Homeland Security departments, and the Office of Management and Budget, told GAO a lack of clearly assigned roles and responsibilities is hindering progress.

"Although the policy review report calls for the cybersecurity coordinator to assign roles and responsibilities, agency officials stated they have yet to receive this tasking and attribute this to the fact that the cybersecurity coordinator position was vacant for seven months," David Powner, GAO's director of information technology management issues, said in his report to Congress.

In addition, officials told GAO some recommendations, such as expanded sharing of information about cyberattacks and vulnerabilities, would take several years to implement.

The report also noted agencies largely were unable to provide timelines for completing the goals. Specifically, they could not produce milestones or blueprints for fulfilling 16 of the 22 near- and midterm recommendations.

"Our extensive research and experience at federal agencies have shown that, without clearly and explicitly assigned roles and responsibilities and documented plans, agencies increase the risk that implementing such actions will not fully succeed," Powner said. "Consequently, until roles and responsibilities are made clear, and the schedule and planning shortfalls are adequately addressed, there is increased risk the recommendations will not be successfully completed, which would unnecessarily place the country's cyber infrastructure at risk."

In oral comments on a draft of the report, Office of the National Cybersecurity Coordinator officials generally concurred with GAO's findings, but said they took exception with statements that gave the "general implication and conclusion that progress is not being made."

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