Agencies Are Leaving Sensitive Data Vulnerable to Hackers, Congress Says

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Amid growing threats from China, Iran and Russia, most agencies are struggling to put in place even the most basic cybersecurity measures, according to congressional researchers.

Many federal agencies are still struggling to put in place the most basic measures to defend their tech infrastructure, even as those systems get pummeled with a growing number of cyberattacks, according to congressional researchers.

For years, agencies failed to protect sensitive personal information, keep running lists of the IT systems used by their organizations and upgrade insecure legacy tech, a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee subpanel found after reviewing 10 years of agency watchdog reports. 

Many departments also consistently failed to install security patches in their most critical software, leaving the systems and the information they contain vulnerable to online attackers, according to the report.

“After a decade of negligence, our federal agencies have failed at implementing basic cybersecurity practices, leaving classified, personal and sensitive information unsafe and vulnerable to theft,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who heads HSGAC’s investigations subcommittee, said in a statement. “The federal government can, and must, do a better job of shoring up our defenses against the rising cybersecurity threats.”

The report summarized a decade’s worth of inspector general investigations at the Homeland Security Department, which spearheads most of the government’s cyber operations, and seven other federal agencies: the Agriculture, Education, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, State and Transportation departments, as well as the Social Security Administration. The seven agencies chosen for review had “the lowest ratings” on federal cybersecurity compliance, researchers wrote.

The government faced more than 35,000 cyber incidents in 2017, and that figure is likely to rise amid escalating tensions with global powers like China, Iran and Russia. But as U.S. officials explore strategies to defend against evolving digital threats, federal agencies are still struggling to put in place protections that were mandated years ago.

Seven of the departments included in the report didn’t have proper safeguards on personally identifiable information stored in their systems, leaving tax documents, medical records, Social Security numbers and other sensitive data potentially vulnerable to hackers, researchers said. Every single agency also continues to operate antiquated IT systems that are particularly susceptible to attacks, they said.

Researchers found five agencies—State, HUD, HHS, Transportation and the Social Security Administration—don’t maintain a comprehensive list of the applications and systems they operate, despite federal requirements to do so. If they don’t know what tech they have, agencies could find themselves paying for systems they don’t use and unable to close security gaps in the ones they do.

But one of the more egregious shortcomings highlighted in the report was agencies’ inability to quickly patch vulnerabilities that are uncovered in their systems. Last year, six departments “failed to timely install security patches and other vulnerability remediation actions,” researchers said, with some leaving hundreds of bugs unaddressed in their most critical systems.

Inspectors general at every agency had highlighted problems with vulnerability patching sometime during the past 10 years, they said. 

The State Department, whose cybersecurity operations are “among the worst in the federal government,” left 76 high-risk and 500 medium-risk vulnerabilities open in its networks last year, researchers found. The Transportation Department also failed to patch 86 critical vulnerabilities and more than 550 high- and medium risk bugs in 2018, they said.

The year before, the Homeland Security Inspector General also uncovered weaknesses in the department’s own patching practices, researchers said, which is somewhat ironic considering the agency oversees the entire government’s cyber hygiene. Auditors found officials had failed to update the Windows software running on numerous agency computers, leaving them vulnerable to WannaCry ransomware that ravaged global networks in 2017.

Last year, the department issued a directive requiring agencies to patch critical vulnerabilities within 15 days of disclosure, down from the previous 30-day standard.

The report also highlighted agencies’ failure to authorize their various IT systems and high turnover among department chief information officers.

“The federal government remains unprepared to confront the dynamic cyber threats of today,” researchers wrote. “The longstanding cyber vulnerabilities consistently highlighted by inspectors general illustrate the federal government’s failure to meet basic cybersecurity standards to protect sensitive data.”