Only Two-Thirds of Federal Domains Meet Email Security Deadline

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The government still plans to reach near 100 percent compliance in the “near future,” DHS official says.

Just over two-thirds of federal email domains met a Homeland Security Department deadline Tuesday to install and be fully protected by a tool that guards against email phishing scams, according to a tally from the Global Cyber Alliance.

About one-fifth of agency web domains appear not to have even begun installing the tool, known as DMARC, the organization found.

That figure comes after a year of staggered deadlines to implement DMARC, which verifies that emailers are who they say they are.

The 67 percent of government domains that made the Tuesday deadline, is a major jump from 8 percent that had DMARC installed when Homeland Security first issued that order, the department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Cyber Policy Tom McDermott noted during an event sponsored by the Global Cyber Alliance and the Cybersecurity Tech Accord.

The department has plans “to get very close to 100 percent” adoption “in the near future,” McDermott said.

The Global Cyber Alliance is a public-private partnership founded by the New York County District Attorney’s Office, the London police and the Center for Internet Security. The Cybersecurity Tech Accord is a coalition of companies focused on digital security issues.

Government’s DMARC adoption, while low, is far ahead of major contractors, according to a separate Global Cyber Alliance tally, which found that only one of the 50 largest federal contractors—the engineering and logistics firm Engility—was using DMARC at the most secure level.

That tally is unchanged since April, according to an earlier Global Cyber Alliance study.

DMARC stands for Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance. The tool basically pings a sender’s email domain and asks if the sender really belongs to that organization. If the domain says the sender is illegitimate, DMARC can send the email to the recipient’s spam folder or decline to deliver it entirely.

The tool is particularly important for federal government domains, which could be a useful tool for fraudsters looking to con citizens into giving up sensitive information related to taxes or government benefits such as Medicare or food assistance.

DMARC must be installed on both the sending and receiving inbox to work. More than 80 percent of commercial email inboxes are protected by DMARC because it’s standard among major email providers including Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

Security companies that scanned federal government domains came up with slightly different DMARC adoption numbers on the deadline Tuesday. That’s largely due to slightly different sample sizes and differing methods for capturing what counts as a federal domain.

The email security company ValiMail found 57 percent of federal domains were protected by DMARC, up from 50 percent one week earlier.

The security firms Proofpoint and Agari both found 74 percent of domains made the deadline.

In general, civilian domains have adopted DMARC more successfully than their Defense Department counterparts, according to earlier ValiMail research.

Defense agencies are not bound by Homeland Security’s 2017 DMARC order but were directed to install the tool whenever possible as part of a major defense policy bill that Congress passed in August.

DMARC should be installed across defense domains by the end of this year, Defense Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy has said.

Some sites captured by the Global Cyber Alliance and other DMARC analyses appear to have been shuttered or moved under larger government web domains.

The Cyber Alliance tally, for example, includes the Homeland Security site Getyouhome.gov, which no longer exists, and the Trump transition website Greatagain.gov, which now forwards to Whitehouse.gov.

The Cyber Alliance tally lists 1,286 total government domains compared with 1,017 domains listed on a government tally focused on a separate digital security goal.

The government launched a major program to shrink the government’s web presence in 2011, which, while largely defunct now, may be responsible for the disparate tallies.

Many of the web domains in the tally do not have email domains associated with them. Without DMARC protection, though, fraudsters could still create a phony email address using the domain name.