Infosec Reviews Not Good for Small Business Administration, Veterans Affairs Department

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Audits note poor posture and highlight weaknesses related to remote work and contractor oversight.

Annual inspector general reports on compliance with the Federal Information Security Modernization Act, or FISMA, point to a long road ahead for improving data security at the Small Business Administration and Veterans Affairs Department. 

Both agencies were dinged for poor identity management, though VA auditors had much more to say about their agency’s security practices.

SBA Has Some Explaining to Do

“We evaluated the overall programs as ‘not effective,’ wrote the SBA IG’s office referring to domains that included identity and access management, security training, and information security continuous monitoring. 

With more workers logging in remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic, identity credentialing and access management and a record of approved equipment are particularly important for security. But the SBA has not finalized its ICAM strategy, and there is no one in charge of creating an inventory of the agency’s hardware. 

“Our testing identified that sufficient documentation was not maintained for all hardware inventory at SBA headquarters, data center locations and contractor sites that process and store SBA data,” the IG wrote. “The inventory was not updated due to SBA not finalizing and implementing system inventory guidance nor defining who within SBA was responsible for maintaining a system’s inventory.”

Regarding SBA’s lack of an official strategy on ICAM, the IG wrote: “without a formal ICAM strategy, SBA is unable to implement federal ICAM requirements; therefore there is increased risk that management may not sufficiently identify and mitigate security risks.”

The IG said there was no way of showing whether access granted was appropriate. The access review documentation was absent.  

Because of failings in the identity management domain, SBA also neglected to conduct security training, which might include instructions on how to avoid the lure of phishing scams that have increased over the course of the pandemic.

“Our testing identified that SBA has not consistently implemented user awareness training due to a weakness identified with user access agreements,” the IG wrote. “The effectiveness of security awareness training can be improved through resolution of recommendations identified above in the CyberScope domain of identity and access management.”

Overall, the IG recommended the SBA improve its record-keeping. The agency also failed to document changes or get approval for deviations from baseline security configurations and did not document justification for missing the due date on plans of action and milestones. 

Specifically, the IG notes, “SBA did not ensure vulnerabilities were mitigated in accordance with SBA defined timelines,” and that “SBA needs to reinforce patch management and configuration policies to ensure that identified systems are properly configured and vulnerabilities are remediated within specified timeframes.”

SBA agreed with all of the 11 recommendations the IG made.

At the VA, Over a Decade of Noncompliance 

While the SBA IG notes “many vulnerabilities were previously identified in a 2018 report,” independent auditors, CliftonLarsonAllen LLP wrote of the VA: “We have identified and reported deficiencies with audit logging for more than 10 years in the annual FISMA reports.”

Larry Reinkemeyer, VA’s assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations said, “The OIG remains concerned that continuing delays in implementing effective corrective actions to address these open recommendations could contribute to reporting a material weakness in connection with VA’s information technology security controls.” 

The VA audit raised a host of issues, including failure to ensure assessment teams were adequately independent from the systems under review, and not fully evaluating the effectiveness of security controls. 

“We also identified several instances of systems that were granted authority to operate without undergoing a timely assessment of security controls,” the auditors wrote.

Auditors found VA’s access management allowed unnecessary system privileges and active accounts for personnel that had been terminated.     

“Unauthorized access to critical systems can leave sensitive data vulnerable to inappropriate modification or destruction,” the report reads.

The auditors said, “Many of these weaknesses can be attributed to VA’s ineffective enforcement of its agency wide information security risk management program and ineffective communication from senior management to individual field offices.” 

During a February 12 hearing of the House VA’s subcommittee on technology modernization, lawmakers voiced concerns about veterans’ privacy in relation to third-party applications for managing mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder offered on the VA’s website.   

The auditors’ testing “identified security control deficiencies related to unsecure web application servers, excessive permissions on database platforms, vulnerable and unsupported third-party applications and operating system software, and a lack of common platform security standards and monitoring across the enterprise.” 

“VA did not fully implement contractor oversight procedures as required by FISMA,” the auditors note. “According to FISMA Section 3544, an agency should ensure adequate information security for systems that support its operations, including those provided by another agency, contractor, or other source.”

The VA’s assistant secretary for information and technology concurred with the IG’s recommendations, noting that management has provided additional information. But in a few instances, as with the IG’s primary recommendation that the VA “implement an improved continuous monitoring program,” the assistant secretary requested the OIG consider the recommendation closed.

“VA follows the [National Institute of Standards and Technology] Risk Management Framework and implements this as an assessment workflow in Enterprise Mission Assurance Support Service for effectiveness of security controls,” management commented.

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