Postal Service Lacked ‘Cybersecurity Culture’ Before Hack, Watchdog Says

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The agency's outdated technology and tiny cybersecurity staff made it more vulnerable to attack, according to the inspector general's report.

At the time of an enormous data breach last year, the U.S. Postal Service wasn't prioritizing cybersecurity, according to a new report from the agency's Office of the Inspector General.

The Postal Service in November 2014 announced it had fallen victim to a "sophisticated" cyber intrusion, compromising the personally identifiable information of more than 800,000 current and former employees, compensation records from 485,000 and customer inquiries from about 2.9 million customers, according to the report. 

At that time, USPS had undertrained employees, outdated technology and "ineffective collaboration among cybersecurity teams," among other shortcomings, stated the report said, which relied on reviews of USPS' cyber operations between September and October 2014. 

For instance, the percentage of USPS network users who had completed a security awareness training was "substantially below common industry practice," the report said -- only about 1 percent of postal employees, compared to about 80 percent in the private sector.

The agency's cybersecurity team was anemic at the time of intrusion, with one cyber professional for every 7,038 users, according to the report. A common ratio in the private sector, the report claimed, is one cyber professional for every 500 to 999 users. 

Though the chief information security officer was responsible for a "certification and accreditation" process for IT systems, in 2014, 43 systems went into production before that process happened, the report said. Managers were not held accountable for their decisions, according to inspectors. 

Aside from managerial challenges, USPS was also using outdated systems no longer supported by the vendor, so it would no longer issue security patches for vulnerabilities. This included 16 of 31 software versions the OIG sampled, and nine operating systems across 39 servers, the report said. One of these operating systems supports servers responsible for the agency's payment processing system. 

Although USPS had already made an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security to take part in its Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation program, which includes an external scan service, the agency is one of only three in the government to not use the scanning service, the report said.  

These and other shortfalls were evidence of the agency's lack of a “cybersecurity culture," in which IT officials and managers "embrace" the need for the security measures and senior managers are engaged in decision-making, the report concluded. 

Before the intrusion, the agency's IT infrastructure focused on keeping intruders out, instead of responding to attacks, the report said. 

“Without adequate resources," the OIG wrote, "the Postal Service did not have the cybersecurity capabilities to prevent, detect or respond to advanced threats."

Since the 2014 breach, USPS has been elevating cybersecurity, the OIG acknowledged. For instance, the agency participated in a forensic investigation following the attack, and has "initiated enhanced monitoring capabilities," among other steps. But its recommendations to the Postal Service included that it provide more funding for "proactive prevention, detection, response and mitigation of sophisticated cyber threats."

In a response included in the report, USPS' acting chief information officer and executive vice president Randy Miskanic said the agency generally agrees with the "broad intent of most of the recommendations in the report," but believes the cyberthreats it faces warrant "more flexible and active management processes and modes of response than those identified by the OIG.”

Since the attack, USPS has "substantially and extensively upgraded management processes, staffing, computing environment protections, training and awareness, and other controls based upon the learnings from the 2014 cyber intrusion," the agency said in a separate email statement provided to Nextgov