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Auditors have criticised US taxmen for failing to keep on top of its IT and the installation of software security patches.

A report [PDF] by the US Treasury credits the IRS with upping its game in patching insecure products faster than it has done previously - but faults the agency for failing to apply a more coherent approach to vulnerability remediation, a shortcoming that means sensitive data is at increased risk of exposure through hacking attack.

"The IRS has taken some actions to address patch management weaknesses, but an enterprise approach is needed to fully implement and enforce patch management policy," the reports concludes. "Any significant delays in patching software with critical vulnerabilities provides ample opportunity for persistent attackers to gain control over the vulnerable computers and get access to the sensitive data they may contain, including taxpayer data."

The 38-page dossier by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) on the audit was compiled at the end of September, but only published last week, following the redaction of security shortcomings that hackers could have exploited.

Implementing effective patch management processes has been an ongoing problem for the IRS. Updating Windows has been improved this time, but the IRS has yet to draw up a full inventory of its IT assets, which is vital for developing a decent patch management strategy for its gear. The report stated:

The IRS has not completed implementation of an accurate and complete inventory of its information technology assets, which is critical for ensuring that patches are identified and applied timely for all types of operating systems and software used within its environment.

There must be systems in place to ensure patches are applied in a timely fashion, too.

TIGTA warns that the IRS needs to come up with procedures to stop workers bringing their smartphones and other devices into work or risk a data security leak.

"The IRS also has not implemented controls to ensure that unsupported operating systems are not putting the IRS at risk," TIGTA warns. "The IRS needs enterprise-level oversight and leadership to complete the implementation of its standardized patch management program and to achieve the benefits of implementing enterprise-wide patching solutions."

The Treasury said the IRS uses an automated asset discovery tool to build an accurate and complete inventory of its stuff before formulating a revised policy to make sure all these assets are patched. It adds that it would be more cost efficient to purchase enterprise-wide patching and vulnerability management tools, to avoid the overlap and extra costs that a piecemeal approach may bring.

IRS managers agreed with all but one of TIGTA’s eight recommendations, taking issue only the suggestion that managers should be hauled over the coals for missing patching deadlines.

"Although the IRS agreed with the intent of the recommendation to hold system owners accountable for patching computers within prescribed time frames, it stated that its existing procedures addressed this recommendation and planned no corrective actions," the TIGTA report explains. ®

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