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US govt password security still dismal

Clueless civil servants leave citizens at risk

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The importance of keeping passwords secret is endlessly reiterated by security firms, banks, and others. Yet US government tax service workers are still to pick up on the message, it seems.

Three in five (60 per cent) US Internal Revenue Service workers readily gave up their user names and agreed to change passwords to ones suggested by government auditors posing as help-desk employees. Only 35 per cent fell for same type of social engineering trick in similar tests on a sample of workers three years ago, while 71 per cent flunked the test in 2001.

Based on the results of the latest audit, the Treasury Department's inspector general concluded: "Employees either do not fully understand security requirements for password protection or do not place a sufficiently high priority on protecting taxpayer data in their day-to-day work."

Workers who flunked the test were asked why they exposed their login credentials to potential hackers. "Some of the notable reasons given were that the employee thought the scenario sounded legitimate and believable, did not think changing his or her password was the same as disclosing the password, or had experienced past computer problems," the report ((pdf) concludes.

Treasury Department auditors recommend that a refresher on password security and the perils of social engineering is administered to tax office workers. Furthermore, workers need to report suspicious requests to IRS computer security personnel for investigation. More internal audits on password security, involving disciplining careless or negligent workers is also needed, the report recommends.

Although attempts to attack the IRS's systems are commonplace, no successful attack has been recorded to date. The report notes that unless password security awareness is improved IRS workers might be exploited as the "weakest link" in facilitating future attacks, aimed at extracting taxpayer information for the purposes of identity theft or other forms of cybercrime. ®

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