Watchdog: GSA Needs to Monitor Access Card Data

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The agency’s inspector general found more than 32,000 failed access attempts over a two year period, which could pose a security risk.

The General Services Administration’s Office of the Inspector General found that the agency is not monitoring building access card data to identify potential risks, according to a report released on Tuesday. 

Despite federal guidance recommending monitoring access card activity to assess risks and determine whether additional oversight is necessary, GSA “is not monitoring access card data from GSA card readers to identify risks to GSA personnel and federal property,” according to the watchdog.  

During the two-year audit period, which ended February 28, 2022, data collected from access card readers in 132 GSA-managed facilities recorded 32,179 failed access attempts—either no zone privilege, unauthorized card, no access at this time or expired access card. OIG stated that such failed attempts “could be an indication of attempted unauthorized access to federal facilities and secured areas” because only those individuals granted the appropriate permissions should have an active card to enter a secured area or system. The access cards are used for GSA-managed facilities and information technology systems. 

OIG stated that during this time period, a single GSA-managed building had an average of 244 failed attempts. However, six buildings had more than 1,000 failed attempts and one building had more than 4,100 failed attempts. Furthermore, the average card user had two failed attempts, but there were 200 users with at least 25 failed attempts and one user with almost 2,000 failed attempts, during that two year period. According to OIG, this could pose a potential security risk, as eight of the top 10 buildings with the most failed attempts had child care facilities or housed security sensitive agencies like the FBI, Social Security Administration or the Department of Homeland Security.

OIG noted that the Physical Access Control Systems—or PACS—Branch within GSA’s Office of Mission Assurance, is responsible for managing the access card data and the network of card readers. However, the PACS branch deputy drector stated that it was “not responsible for reviewing the data” and that “it would not be fair for the PACS Branch to review access records because it could give rise to concerns that employees are being monitored.” But, according to OIG, several GSA building managers thought PACS Branch would inform them of suspicious access data. 

OIG found that some building managers do not get access data, and those that do get data only receive it for the previous day, so they do not have trend data and analysis. According to OIG, GSA has also not issued any written guidance on the matter, which OIG stated could be problematic when looking at risks to renew access cards. 

OIG added that since 2016, its reports have found issues with GSA’s access card management practices. For example, a 2020 audit found that “GSA personnel inappropriately shared their access cards with individuals who did not possess a valid credential of their own to give those individuals access to secured space” and the agency could not account for 15,000 contract employee access cards. 

OIG recommended that the GSA administrator:

  • Create and implement procedures to monitor access card data to identify “repeated, failed access attempts that require follow up.”
  • Utilize access card data that is being collected to generate trend data to update building security stakeholders of individuals with a significant number of failed attempts for a specific time period. 
  • Develop and disseminate guidance about how building security stakeholders should handle multiple failed access attempts. 

In response to the report, GSA stated it “is committed to providing a safe and secure workplace for its employees, as well as the other tenants and visitors in facilities under GSA’s jurisdiction, custody and control.”

GSA added that when the audit was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, “it was expected that a higher than average rejection rate at access card readers would exist” because “many employee and contractor PIV cards and certificates had expired while credentialing stations were closed. These employees may have been unable to receive new cards, but still would have been asked by U.S. Department of Homeland Security—Federal Protective Service Protective Security Officers to attempt to use their expired card at a card reader before undergoing secondary screening to enter a facility. GSA believes these failed access attempts show that GSA-managed PACS in these facilities were working as intended.” 

However, GSA’s administrator agreed with OIG’s recommendations, particularly citing the findings of several individuals with high numbers of failed attempts.