Lawmakers worry over government network breaches
Congress interests itself in cyber security
Long an afterthought for U.S. lawmakers, cybersecurity has received renewed attention in some parts of Congress.
Last Wednesday, a U.S. House of Representatives' subcommittee took the chief information officer of the Department of Homeland Security, Scott Charbo, to task for allowing 844 significant cybersecurity incidents in the past two years. The breaches included workstations infected with Trojan horses and unauthorized users attaching their personal computers to the Department's network.
The chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., pulled no punches in dressing down Charbo.
"I am not convinced he is serious about fixing the vulnerabilities in our systems, and if he is not committed to securing our networks, I have to question his ability to lead the department's IT efforts," Rep. Thompson said in opening remarks on Wednesday. "I think the first thing that Mr. Charbo needs to explain is why he should be able to keep his job."
The drama replays a number of themes from a hearing two months ago. In April, the same subcommittee - the House Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, and Science and Technology - heard testimony from representatives of the Departments of State and Commerce regarding attacks on those agencies' systems the previous year. The Department of State acknowledged  in June 2006 that attackers had installed remote access software on systems in the agency and abroad, stolen passwords and targeted information on China and North Korea. In October 2006, the Department of Commerce took hundreds of computers offline  following a series of attacks aimed at federal employees' computer accounts by online thieves that appear to be based in China.
"It has become clear that the infiltration of federal government networks and the possible theft of exploitation of our information is one of the most critical issues confronting our nation," Rep. James Langevin, D-RI, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, and Science and Technology, said in a written opening statement on Wednesday.
For security experts, the hearings underscore that some parts of the U.S. government - which has given cybersecurity short shrift since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 - are ready to take the security of federal networks more seriously.
"Congress seems to have come alive, and all of us like it," said Marcus Sachs, deputy director of the computer science lab at government contractor SRI International and an incident handler for the SANS Institute. "By holding public hearings, it brings a new light to the facts that might otherwise be buried in reports."
Over the past four years, the federal government has only showed slight improvement in complying with the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA), a law designed to force federal agencies to be aware of the information assets and systems connected to their networks.
In 2003, the first year that the agencies submitted audits of their networks, the 24 federal organizations had an overall grade of 'D' with eight departments receiving a failing grade . By 2006, the government's overall grade rose to a 'C-' . However, eight agencies still received failing grades and the Department of Veterans Affairs - the focus of a massive potential breach of information that could have affected  the nation's 26.5 million veterans - did not even submit its audit report.
All three agencies currently in the Congressional spotlight have had subpar grades. The Departments of Commerce and State both received an 'F' in the latest report, while the Department of Homeland Security improved its string of failing grades to a 'D' in 2006, but still has not found the resources to mitigate more than two-thirds of the flaws found in its systems, according to a report from the Department's Inspector General.
Rep. Thompson stressed that the grade should not be a mark of pride. "The American people are tired of hearing that getting a 'D' is an improvement," he said last week.
Such criticism is unlikely to subside any time soon.
On Thursday, the subcommittee will hear from the Department of Homeland Security's US-VISIT program regarding issues that the agency has had in protecting the program's database of traveler information. A report on the security of the program conducted by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) has found that the systems are "riddled with significant information security control weaknesses that place sensitive and personally identifiable information at increase risk of unauthorized disclosure and modification, misuse, and destruction possibly without detection, and place program operations at increased risk of disruption," according to Rep. Langevin.
And a handful of other incidents have attracted the attention of lawmakers. Last week, the Department of Defense shut down e-mail service to an estimated 1,500 employees following a breach, according to reports . The Department of Energy has also come under fire  for allowing classified information to be sent over the public Internet.
The incidents underscore that the nation has a larger problem to deal with, Rep. Langevin said in prepared remarks opening April's hearing on the Departments of State and Commerce breaches.
"We don't know the scope of our networks. We don't know who's inside our networks. We don't know what information has been stolen," he said. "We need to get serious about this threat to our national security."
This article originally appeared in Security Focus .
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