Information Security: Strengthened Management Needed to Protect Critical
Federal Operations and Assets (Testimony, 09/23/98, GAO/T-AIMD-98-312).

GAO discussed the state of information security in the federal
government, focusing on the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) and the
Social Security Administration's (SSA) efforts to develop and maintain
an effective security management program.

GAO noted that: (1) as the importance of computer security has
increased, so have the rigor and frequency of federal audits in this
area; (2) during the last 2 years, GAO and the agency inspectors general
(IG) have evaluated computer-based controls on a wide variety of
financial and nonfinancial systems supporting critical federal programs
and operations; (3) the most recent set of audit results described
significant information security weakness in each of the 24 federal
agencies covered by GAO's analysis; (4) these weaknesses cover a variety
of areas, which GAO has grouped into six categories of general control
weaknesses; (5) in GAO's report, it noted significant problems related
to VA's control and oversight of access to its systems; (6) VA did not
adequately limit the access of authorized users or effectively manage
user identifications and passwords; (7) GAO also found that the
department had not adequately protected its systems from unauthorized
access from remote locations or through the VA network; (8) a primary
reason for VA's continuing general computer control problems is that the
department does not have a comprehensive computer security planning and
management program in place to ensure that effective controls are
established and maintained and that computer security receives adequate
attention; (9) the public depends on SSA to protect trust fund revenues
and assets from fraud and to protect sensitive information on
individuals from inappropriate disclosure; (10) in addition, many
current beneficiaries rely on the uninterrupted flow of monthly payments
to meet their basic needs; in November 1997, the SSA IG reported serious
weaknesses in controls over information resources, including access,
continuity of service, and software program changes that unnecessarily
place these assets and operations at risk; (11) internal control testing
identified information protection-related weaknesses throughout SSA's
information systems environment; (12) an underlying factor that
contributes to SSA's information security weaknesses is inadequate
entitywide security program planning and management; (13) substantively
improving federal information security will require efforts at both the
individual agency level and at the governmentwide level; and (14) over
the last 2 years, a number of efforts have been initiated, but
additional actions are still needed.

--------------------------- Indexing Terms -----------------------------

     TITLE:  Information Security: Strengthened Management Needed to 
             Protect Critical Federal Operations and Assets
      DATE:  09/23/98
   SUBJECT:  Computer security
             Confidential communication
             Information systems
             Internal controls
             Computer crimes
             Data integrity

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================================================================ COVER

Before the Committee on Governmental Affairs, U.S.  Senate

For Release on Delivery
Expected at
10 a.m.
September 23, 1998


Statement of Gene L.  Dodaro
Assistant Comptroller General
Accounting and Information Management Division




=============================================================== ABBREV

  CIO -
  ID -
  IG -
  OMB -
  PDD -
  SSA -
  VA -

============================================================ Chapter 0

Mr.  Chairman and Members of the Committee: 

I am pleased to have this opportunity to provide an assessment of the
current state of information security in federal government.  Our
most recent report, done at the request of this Committee, delineates
the serious information security weaknesses placing critical
operations and assets at risk and outlines actions needed to further
improve security practices across government.  The two agencies that
you asked us to focus on today--the Department of Veterans Affairs
and the Social Security Administration--illustrate the types of risk
facing individual departments and agencies as well as actions
required to strengthen security management.  Recent efforts by these
organizations and others throughout government are encouraging
because they signify increasing attention to information security
concerns, but, as we will discuss today, additional measures are
necessary for the federal government to develop and maintain a truly
effective security management program. 

---------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:1

We last provided you an overview of federal information security in
September 1996.  At that time, serious security weaknesses had been
identified at 10 of the largest 15 federal agencies, and we concluded
that poor information security was a widespread federal problem.\1 We
recommended that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) play a
more active role in overseeing agency practices, in part through its
role as chair of the then newly established Chief Information
Officers (CIO) Council.  Subsequently, in February 1997, as more
audit evidence became available, we designated information security
as a new governmentwide high-risk area in a series of reports to the

During 1996 and 1997, federal information security also was addressed
by the President's Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection,
which had been established to investigate our nation's vulnerability
to both "cyber" and physical threats.  In its October 1997 report,
Critical Foundations:  Protecting America's Infrastructures, the
Commission described the potentially devastating implications of poor
information security from a national perspective.  The report also
recognized that the federal government must "lead by example," and
included recommendations for improving government systems security. 
This report eventually led to issuance of Presidential Decision
Directive 63 in May 1998, which I will discuss in conjunction with
other governmentwide security improvement efforts later in my

\1 Information Security:  Opportunities for Improved OMB Oversight of
Agency Practices (GAO/AIMD-96-110, September 24, 1996). 

\2 High-Risk Series:  Information Management and Technology
(GAO/HR-97-9, February 1997). 

---------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:2

As hearings by this Committee have emphasized, risks to the security
of our government's computer systems are significant, and they are
growing.  The dramatic increase in computer interconnectivity and the
popularity of the Internet, while facilitating access to information,
are factors that also make it easier for individuals and groups with
malicious intentions to intrude into inadequately protected systems
and use such access to obtain sensitive information, commit fraud, or
disrupt operations.  Further, the number of individuals with computer
skills is increasing, and intrusion, or "hacking," techniques are
readily available. 

Attacks on and misuse of federal computer and telecommunication
resources are of increasing concern because these resources are
virtually indispensable for carrying out critical operations and
protecting sensitive data and assets.  For example,

  -- weaknesses at the Department of the Treasury place over a
     trillion dollars of annual federal receipts and payments at risk
     of fraud and large amounts of sensitive taxpayer data at risk of
     inappropriate disclosure;

  -- weaknesses at the Health Care Financing Administration place
     billions of dollars of claim payments at risk of fraud and
     sensitive medical information at risk of disclosure; and

  -- weaknesses at the Department of Defense affect operations such
     as mobilizing reservists, paying soldiers, and managing
     supplies.  Moreover, Defense's warfighting capability is
     dependent on computer-based telecommunications networks and
     information systems. 

These and other examples of risks to federal operations and assets
are detailed in our report Information Security:  Serious Weaknesses
Place Critical Federal Operations and Assets at Risk
(GAO/AIMD-98-92), which the Committee is releasing today.  Although
it is not possible to eliminate these risks, understanding them and
implementing an appropriate level of effective controls can reduce
the risks significantly.  Conversely, an environment of widespread
control weaknesses may invite attacks that would otherwise be

---------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:3

As the importance of computer security has increased, so have the
rigor and frequency of federal audits in this area.  During the last
2 years, we and the agency inspectors general (IG) have evaluated
computer-based controls on a wide variety of financial and
nonfinancial systems supporting critical federal programs and
operations.  Many of these audits are now done annually.  This
growing body of audit evidence is providing a more complete and
detailed picture of federal information security than was previously

The most recent set of audit results that we evaluated--those
published since March 1996--describe significant information security
weakness in each of the 24 federal agencies\3

covered by our analysis.  These weaknesses cover a variety of areas,
which we have grouped into six categories of general control

\3 These agencies accounted for 99 percent of reported federal net
outlays in fiscal year 1997. 

-------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:3.1

The most widely reported weakness was poor control over access to
sensitive data and systems.  This area of control was evaluated at 23
of the 24 agencies, and weaknesses were identified at each of the 23. 
Access control weaknesses make systems vulnerable to damage and
misuse by allowing individuals and groups to inappropriately modify,
destroy, or disclose sensitive data or computer programs for purposes
such as personal gain or sabotage.  Access controls limit or detect
inappropriate access to computer resources (data, equipment, and
facilities), thereby protecting them against unauthorized
modification, loss, and disclosure. 

Access controls include physical protections, such as gates and
guards, as well as logical controls, which are controls built into
software that (1) require users to authenticate themselves through
the use of secret passwords or other identifiers and (2) limit the
files and other resources that an authenticated user can access and
the actions that he or she can execute.  In today's increasingly
interconnected computing environment, poor access controls can expose
an agency's information and operations to potentially devastating
attacks from remote locations all over the world by individuals with
minimal computer and telecommunications resources and expertise. 
Common types of access control weaknesses included

  -- overly broad access privileges inappropriately provided to very
     large groups of users;

  -- access that was not appropriately authorized and documented;

  -- multiple users sharing the same accounts and passwords, making
     it impossible to trace specific transactions or modifications to
     an individual;

  -- inadequate monitoring of user activity to deter and identify
     inappropriate actions, investigate suspicious activity, and
     penalize perpetrators;

  -- improperly implemented access controls, resulting in unintended
     access or gaps in access control coverage; and

  -- access that was not promptly terminated or adjusted when users
     either left an agency or when their responsibilities no longer
     required them to have access to certain files. 

-------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:3.2

The second most widely reported type of weakness pertained to service
continuity.  Service continuity controls ensure that when unexpected
events occur, critical operations continue without undue interruption
and critical and sensitive data are protected.  In addition to
protecting against natural disasters and accidental disruptions, such
controls also protect against the growing threat of
"cyber-terrorism," where individuals or groups with malicious intent
may attack an agency's systems in order to severely disrupt critical
operations.  For this reason, an agency should have (1) procedures in
place to protect information resources and minimize the risk of
unplanned interruptions and (2) a plan to recover critical operations
should interruptions occur.  To determine whether recovery plans will
work as intended, they should be tested periodically in disaster
simulation exercises. 

Losing the capability to process, retrieve, and protect information
maintained electronically can significantly affect an agency's
ability to accomplish its mission.  If controls are inadequate, even
relatively minor interruptions can result in lost or incorrectly
processed data, which can cause financial losses, expensive recovery
efforts, and inaccurate or incomplete financial or management

Service continuity controls were evaluated for 20 of the agencies
included in our analysis, and weaknesses were reported for all of
these agencies.  Common weaknesses included the following: 

  -- Plans were incomplete because operations and supporting
     resources had not been fully analyzed to determine which were
     the most critical and would need to be resumed as soon as
     possible should a disruption occur. 

  -- Disaster recovery plans were not fully tested to identify their
     weaknesses.  One agency's plan was based on an assumption that
     key personnel could be contacted within 10 minutes of the
     emergency, an assumption that had not been tested. 

-------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:3.3

The third most common type of weakness involved inadequate entitywide
security program planning and management.  Each organization needs a
set of management procedures and an organizational framework for
identifying and assessing risks, deciding what policies and controls
are needed, periodically evaluating the effectiveness of these
policies and controls, and acting to address any identified
weaknesses.  These are the fundamental activities that allow an
organization to manage its information security risks cost
effectively, rather than reacting to individual problems ad hoc only
after a violation has been detected or an audit finding has been

Weaknesses were reported for all 17 of the agencies for which this
area of control was evaluated.  Many of these agencies had not
developed security plans for major systems based on risk, had not
formally documented security policies, and had not implemented a
program for testing and evaluating the effectiveness of the controls
they relied on. 

-------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:3.4

The fourth most commonly reported type of weakness was inadequate
segregation of duties.  Segregation of duties refers to the policies,
procedures, and organizational structure that help ensure that one
individual cannot independently control all key aspects of a process
or computer-related operation and thereby conduct unauthorized
actions or gain unauthorized access to assets or records without
detection.  For example, one computer programmer should not be
allowed to independently write, test, and approve program changes. 

Segregation of duties is an important internal control concept that
applies to both computerized and manual processes.\4 However, it is
especially important in computerized environments, since an
individual with overly broad access privileges can initiate and
execute inappropriate actions, such as software changes or fraudulent
transactions, more quickly and with greater impact than is generally
possible in a nonautomated environment.  Although segregation of
duties alone will not ensure that only authorized activities occur,
inadequate segregation of duties increases the risk that erroneous or
fraudulent transactions could be processed, that improper program
changes could be implemented, and that computer resources could be
damaged or destroyed. 

Controls to ensure appropriate segregation of duties consist mainly
of documenting, communicating, and enforcing policies on group and
individual responsibilities.  Enforcement can be accomplished by a
combination of physical and logical access controls and by effective
supervisory review. 

Segregation of duties was evaluated at 17 of the 24 agencies. 
Weaknesses were identified at 16 of these agencies.  Common problems
involved computer programmers and operators who were authorized to
perform a wide variety of duties, thus enabling them to independently
modify, circumvent, and disable system security features.  For
example, at one agency, all users of the financial management system
could independently perform all of the steps needed to initiate and
complete a payment--obligate funds, record vouchers for payment, and
record checks for payment--making it relatively easy to make a
fraudulent payment. 

\4 Title 2, "Accounting," Appendix II, "Standards for Internal
Controls in the Federal Government," GAO Policy and Procedures Manual
for Guidance of Federal Agencies. 

-------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:3.5

The fifth most commonly reported type of weakness pertained to
software development and change controls.  Such controls prevent
unauthorized software programs or modifications to programs from
being implemented.  Key aspects are ensuring that (1) software
changes are properly authorized by the managers responsible for the
agency program or operations that the application supports, (2) new
and modified software programs are tested and approved prior to their
implementation, and (3) approved software programs are maintained in
carefully controlled libraries to protect them from unauthorized
changes and ensure that different versions are not misidentified. 

Such controls can prevent both errors in software programming as well
as malicious efforts to insert unauthorized computer program code. 
Without adequate controls, incompletely tested or unapproved software
can result in erroneous data processing that depending on the
application, could lead to losses or faulty outcomes.  In addition,
individuals could surreptitiously modify software programs to include
processing steps or features that could later be exploited for
personal gain or sabotage. 

Weaknesses in software program change controls were identified for 14
of the 18 agencies where such controls were evaluated.  One of the
most common types of weakness in this area was undisciplined testing
procedures that did not ensure that implemented software operated as
intended.  In addition, procedures did not ensure that emergency
changes were subsequently tested and formally approved for continued
use and that implementation of locally-developed unauthorized
software programs was prevented or detected. 

-------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:3.6

The sixth area pertained to operating system software controls. 
System software controls limit and monitor access to the powerful
programs and sensitive files associated with the computer systems
operation.  Generally, one set of system software is used to support
and control a variety of applications that may run on the same
computer hardware.  System software helps control and coordinate the
input, processing, output, and data storage associated with all of
the applications that run on the system.  Some system software can
change data and programs without leaving an audit trail or can be
used to modify or delete audit trails.  Examples of system software
include the operating system, system utilities, program library
systems, file maintenance software, security software, data
communications systems, and database management systems. 

Controls over access to and modification of system software are
essential in providing reasonable assurance that operating
system-based security controls are not compromised and that the
system will not be impaired.  If controls in this area are
inadequate, unauthorized individuals might use system software to
circumvent security controls to read, modify, or delete critical or
sensitive information and programs.  Also, authorized users of the
system may gain unauthorized privileges to conduct unauthorized
actions or to circumvent edits and other controls built into
application programs.  Such weaknesses seriously diminish the
reliability of information produced by all of the applications
supported by the computer system and increase the risk of fraud,
sabotage, and inappropriate disclosures.  Further, system software
programmers are often more technically proficient than other data
processing personnel and, thus, have a greater ability to perform
unauthorized actions if controls in this area are weak. 

A common type of system software control weakness reported was
insufficiently restricted access that made it possible for
knowledgeable individuals to disable or circumvent controls in a wide
variety of ways.  For example, at one facility, 88 individuals had
the ability to implement programs not controlled by the security
software, and 103 had the ability to access an unencrypted security
file containing passwords for authorized users. 

Significant system software control weaknesses were reported at 9 of
the 24 agencies.  In the remaining 15 agencies, this area of control
had not been fully evaluated.  We are working with the IGs to ensure
that it receives adequate coverage in future evaluations. 

I would now like to describe in greater detail weaknesses at the two
agencies that you have chosen to feature today:  the Department of
Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration. 

---------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:4

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) relies on a vast array of
computer systems and telecommunications networks to support its
operations and store the sensitive information the department
collects in carrying out its mission.  In a report released today, we
identify general computer control weaknesses that place critical VA
operations, such as financial management, health care delivery,
benefit payments, life insurance services, and home mortgage loan
guarantees, at risk of misuse and disruption.\5 In addition,
sensitive information contained in VA's systems, including financial
transaction data and personal information on veteran medical records
and benefit payments, is vulnerable to inadvertent or deliberate
misuse, fraudulent use, improper disclosure, or destruction--possibly
occurring without detection. 

VA operates the largest health care delivery system in the United
States and guarantees loans on about 20 percent of the homes in the
country.  In fiscal year 1997, VA spent over $17 billion on medical
care and processed over 40 million benefit payments totaling over $20
billion.  The department also provided insurance protection through
more than 2.5 million policies that represented about $24 billion in
coverage at the end of fiscal year 1997.  In addition, the VA systems
support the department's centralized accounting and payroll
functions.  In fiscal year 1997, VA's payroll was almost $11 billion,
and the centralized accounting system generated over $7 billion in
additional payments. 

In our report, we note significant problems related to the
department's control and oversight of access to its systems.  VA did
not adequately limit the access of authorized users or effectively
manage user identifications (ID) and passwords. 

  -- At one facility, the security software was implemented in a
     manner that provided all of the more than 13,000 users with the
     ability to access and change sensitive data files, read system
     audit information, and execute powerful system utilities.  Such
     broad access authority increased the risk that users could
     circumvent the security software to alter payroll and other
     payment transactions.  This weakness could also provide users
     the opportunity to access and disclose sensitive information on
     veteran medical records, such as diagnoses, procedures
     performed, inpatient admission and discharge data, or the
     purpose of outpatient visits, and home mortgage loans, including
     the purpose, loan balance, default status, foreclosure status,
     and amount delinquent. 

  -- At two facilities, we found that system programmers had access
     to both system software and financial data.  This type of access
     could allow the programmers to make unauthorized changes to
     benefit payment information without being detected. 

  -- At four of the five facilities we visited, we identified user ID
     and password management control weaknesses that increased the
     risk of passwords being compromised to gain unauthorized access. 
     For example, IDs for terminated or transferred employees were
     not being disabled, many passwords were common words that could
     be easily guessed, numerous staff were sharing passwords, and
     some user accounts did not have passwords These types of
     weaknesses make the financial transaction data and personal
     information on veteran medical records and benefits stored on
     these systems vulnerable to misuse, improper disclosure, and
     destruction.  We demonstrated these vulnerabilities by gaining
     unauthorized access to VA systems and obtaining information that
     could have been used to develop a strategy to alter or disclose
     sensitive patient information. 

We also found that the department had not adequately protected its
systems from unauthorized access from remote locations or through the
VA network.  The risks created by these issues are serious because,
in VA's interconnected environment, the failure to control access to
any system connected to the network also exposes other systems and
applications on the network. 

  -- While simulating an outside hacker, we gained unauthorized
     access to the VA network.  Having obtained this access, we were
     able to identify other systems on the network, which makes it
     much easier for outsiders with no knowledge of VA's operations
     or infrastructure to penetrate the department's computer
     resources.  We used this information to access the log-on screen
     of another computer that contained financial and payroll data,
     veteran loan information, and sensitive information on veteran
     medical records for both inpatient and outpatient treatment. 
     Such access to the VA network, when coupled with VA's
     ineffective user ID and password management controls and
     available hacker tools, creates a significant risk that
     outside hackers could gain unauthorized access to this

  -- At two facilities, we were able to demonstrate that network
     controls did not prevent unauthorized users with access to VA
     facilities or authorized users with malicious intent from
     gaining improper access to VA systems.  We were able to gain
     access to both mainframe and network systems that could have
     allowed us to improperly modify payments related to VA's loan
     guaranty program and alter sensitive veteran compensation,
     pension, and life insurance benefit information.  We were also
     in a position to read and modify sensitive data. 

The risks created by these access control problems were also
heightened significantly because VA was not adequately monitoring its
systems for unusual or suspicious access activities.  In addition,
the department was not providing adequate physical security for its
computer facilities, assigning duties in such a way as to properly
segregate functions, controlling changes to powerful operating system
software, or updating and testing disaster recovery plans to ensure
that the department could maintain or regain critical functions in

Many similar access and other general computer control weaknesses had
been reported in previous years, indicating that VA's past actions
have not been effective on a departmentwide basis.  Weaknesses
associated with restricting access to sensitive data and programs and
monitoring access activity have been consistently reported in IG and
other internal reports. 

A primary reason for VA's continuing general computer control
problems is that the department does not have a comprehensive
computer security planning and management program in place to ensure
that effective controls are established and maintained and that
computer security receives adequate attention.  An effective program
would include guidance and procedures for assessing risks and
mitigating controls, and monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness
of established controls.  However, VA had not clearly delineated
security roles and responsibilities; performed regular, periodic
assessments of risk; implemented security policies and procedures
that addressed all aspects of VA's interconnected environment;
established an ongoing monitoring program to identify and investigate
unauthorized, unusual, or suspicious access activity; or instituted a
process to measure, test, and report on the continued effectiveness
of computer system, network, and process controls. 

In our report to VA, we recommended that the Secretary direct the CIO
to (1) work with the other VA CIOs to address all identified computer
control weaknesses, (2) develop and implement a comprehensive
departmentwide computer security planning and management program, (3)
review and assess computer control weaknesses identified throughout
the department and establish a process to ensure that these
weaknesses are addressed, and (4) monitor and periodically report on
the status of improvements to computer security throughout the

In commenting on our report, VA agreed with these recommendations and
stated that the department would immediately correct the identified
computer control weaknesses and implement oversight mechanisms to
ensure that these problems do not reoccur.  VA also stated that the
department was developing plans to correct deficiencies previously
identified by the IG and by internal evaluations and that the VA CIO
will report periodically on VA's progress in correcting computer
control weaknesses throughout the department.  We have discussed
these actions with VA officials, and, as part of our upcoming review,
we will be examining completed actions and evaluating their

\5 VA Information Systems:  Computer Control Weaknesses Increase Risk
of Fraud, Misuse, and Improper Disclosure (GAO/AIMD-98-175, September
23, 1998). 

---------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:5

The Social Security Administration (SSA) relies on extensive
information processing resources to carry out its operations, which,
for 1997, included payments that totaled approximately $390 billion
to 50 million beneficiaries.  This was almost 25 percent of the $1.6
trillion in that year's federal expenditures.  SSA also issues social
security numbers and maintains earnings records and other personal
information on virtually all U.  S.  citizens.  Through its programs,
SSA processes approximately 225 million wage and tax statements (W-2
forms) annually for approximately 138 million workers.  Few federal
agencies affect so many people. 

The public depends on SSA to protect trust fund revenues and assets
from fraud and to protect sensitive information on individuals from
inappropriate disclosure.  In addition, many current beneficiaries
rely on the uninterrupted flow of monthly payments to meet their
basic needs.  In November 1997, the SSA IG reported serious
weaknesses in controls over information resources, including access,
continuity of service, and software program changes that
unnecessarily place these assets and operations at risk.\6 These
weaknesses demonstrate the need for SSA to do more to assure that
adequate controls are provided for information collected, processed,
transmitted, stored, or disseminated in general support systems or
major applications. 

Internal control testing identified information protection-related
weaknesses throughout SSA's information systems environment. 
Affected areas included SSA's distributed computer systems as well as
its mainframe computers.  These vulnerabilities exposed SSA and its
computer systems to external and internal intrusion; subjected
sensitive SSA information related to social security numbers,
earnings, disabilities, and benefits to potential unauthorized
access, modification, and/or disclosure; and increased the risks of
fraud, waste, and abuse.  Access control and other weaknesses also
increased the risks of introducing errors or irregularities into data
processing operations. 

For example, auditors identified numerous employee user accounts on
SSA networks, including dial-in modems, that were either not password
protected or were protected by easily guessed passwords.  These
weaknesses increased the risk that unauthorized outsiders could
access, modify, and delete data; create, modify, and delete users;
and disrupt services on portions of SSA's network.  In addition,
auditors identified network control weaknesses that could result in
accidental or intentional alteration of birth and death records, as
well as unauthorized disclosure of personal data and social security

These weaknesses were made worse because security awareness among
employees was not consistent at SSA.  As a result, SSA was
susceptible to security penetration techniques, such as social
engineering, whereby users disclose sensitive information in response
to seemingly legitimate requests from strangers either over the phone
or in person.  The auditors reported that during testing, they were
able to secure enough information through social engineering to allow
access to SSA's network. 

Further, by applying intrusion techniques in penetration tests,
auditors gained access to various SSA systems that would have allowed
them to view user data, add and delete users, modify network
configurations, and disrupt service to users.  By gaining access
through such tests, auditors also were able to execute software tools
that resulted in their gaining access to SSA electronic mailboxes,
public mailing lists, and bulletin boards.  This access would have
provided an intruder the ability to read, send, or change e-mail
exchanged among SSA users, including messages from or to the

In addition to access control weaknesses and inadequate user
awareness, employee duties at SSA were not appropriately segregated
to reduce the risk that an individual employee could introduce and
execute unauthorized transactions without detection.  As a result,
certain employees had the ability to independently carry out actions
such as initiating and adjudicating claims or moving and reinstating
earnings data.  This weakness was exacerbated because certain
mitigating monitoring or detective controls could not be relied on. 
For example, SSA has developed a system that allows supervisors to
review sensitive or potentially fraudulent activity.  However, key
transactions or combinations of transactions are not being reviewed
or followed up promptly and certain audit trail features have not
been activated. 

Weaknesses such as those I have just described increase the risk that
a knowledgeable individual or group could fraudulently obtain
payments by creating fictitious beneficiaries or increasing payment
amounts.  Similarly, such individuals could secretly obtain sensitive
information and sell or otherwise use it for personal gain. 

The recent growth in "identity theft," where personal information is
stolen and used fraudulently by impersonators for purposes such as
obtaining and using credit cards, has created a market for such
information.  According to the SSA IG's September 30, 1997, report to
the Congress (included in the SSA's fiscal year 1997 Accountability
Report), 29 criminal convictions involving SSA employees were
obtained during fiscal year 1997, most of which involved creating
fictitious identities, fraudulently selling SSA cards,
misappropriating refunds, or abusing access to confidential
information.  The risk of abuse by SSA employees is of special
concern because, except for a very few individuals, SSA does not
restrict access to view sensitive data based on a need-to-know basis. 
As a result, a large number of SSA employees can browse enumeration,
earnings, and claims records for many other individuals, including
other SSA employees, without detection.  SSA provides this broad
access because it believes that doing so facilitates its employees'
ability to carry out SSA's mission. 

An underlying factor that contributes to SSA's information security
weaknesses is inadequate entitywide security program planning and
management.  Although SSA has an entitywide security program in
place, it does not sufficiently address all areas of security,
including dial-in access, telecommunications, certain major mainframe
system applications, and distributed systems outside the mainframe
environment.  A lack of such an entitywide program impairs each
group's ability to develop a security structure for its responsible
area and makes it difficult for SSA management to monitor agency
performance in this area. 

In two separate letters to SSA management, the IG and its contractor
made recommendations to address the weaknesses reported in November
1997.  SSA has agreed with the majority of the recommendations and is
developing related corrective action plans. 

\6 Social Security Accountability Report for Fiscal Year 1997, SSA
Pub.  No.  31-231, November 1997. 

---------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:6

Substantively improving federal information security will require
efforts at both the individual agency level and at the governmentwide
level.  Agency managers are primarily responsible for securing the
information resources that support their critical operations. 
However, central oversight also is important to monitor agency
performance and address crosscutting issues that affect multiple
agencies.  Over the last 2 years, a number of efforts have been
initiated, but additional actions are still needed. 

-------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:6.1

First, it is important that agency managers implement comprehensive
programs for identifying and managing their security risks in
addition to correcting specific reported weaknesses.  Over the last 2
years, our reports and IG reports have included scores of
recommendations to individual agencies, and agencies have either
implemented or planned actions to address most of the specific
weaknesses.  However, there has been a tendency to react to
individual audit findings as they were reported, with little ongoing
attention to the systemic causes of control weaknesses. 

In short, agencies need to move beyond addressing individual audit
findings and supplement these efforts with a framework for
proactively managing the information security risks associated with
their operations.  Such a framework includes determining which risks
are significant, assigning responsibility for taking steps to reduce
risks, and ensuring that these steps are implemented effectively and
remain effective over time.  Without a management framework for
carrying out these activities, information security risks to critical
operations may be poorly understood; responsibilities may be unclear
and improperly implemented; and policies and controls may be
inadequate, ineffective, or inconsistently applied. 

-------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:6.2

In late 1996, at the Committee's request, we undertook an effort to
identify potential solutions to this problem, including examples that
could supplement existing guidance to agencies.  To do this, we
studied the security management practices of eight nonfederal
organizations known for their superior security programs.  These
organizations included two financial services corporations, a
regional electric utility, a state university, a retailer, a state
agency, a computer vendor, and an equipment manufacturer. 

We found that these organizations managed their information security
risks through a cycle of risk management activities, and we
identified 16 specific practices that supported these risk management
principles.  These practices are outlined in an executive guide
titled Information Security Management:  Learning From Leading
Organizations (GAO/AIMD-98-68), which was released by the Committee
in May 1998 and endorsed by the CIO Council.  Upon publication, the
guide was distributed to all major agency heads, CIOs, and IGs. 

The guide describes a framework for managing information security
risks through an ongoing cycle of activities coordinated by a central
focal point.  Such a framework can help ensure that existing controls
are effective and that new, more advanced control techniques are
prudently and effectively selected and implemented as they become
available.  The risk management cycle and the 16 practices supporting
this cycle of activity are depicted in the following figures. 

   Figure 1:  The Risk Management

   (See figure in printed

   Figure 2:  Sixteen Practices
   Employed by Leading
   Organizations to Implement the
   Risk Management Cycle

   (See figure in printed

-------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:6.3

In addition to effective security program planning and management at
individual agencies, governmentwide leadership, coordination, and
oversight are important to

  -- ensure that federal executives understand the risks to their

  -- monitor agency performance in mitigating these risks,

  -- ensure implementation of needed improvements, and

  -- facilitate actions to resolve issues affecting multiple

To help achieve this, the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980 made OMB
responsible for developing information security policies and
overseeing related agency practices.  In 1996, we reported that OMB's
oversight consisted largely of reviewing selected agency
system-related projects and participating in various federal task
forces and working groups.  While these activities are important, we
recommended that OMB play a more active role in overseeing agency
performance in the area of information security. 

Since then, OMB's efforts have been supplemented by those of the CIO
Council.  In late 1997, the Council, under OMB's leadership,
designated information security as one of six priority areas and
established a Security Committee, an action that we had recommended
in 1996.  The Security Committee, in turn, has established
relationships with other federal entities involved in security and
developed a very preliminary plan.  While the plan does not yet
comprehensively address the various issues affecting federal
information security or provide a long-range strategy for
improvement, it does cover important areas by specifying three
general objectives:  promote awareness and training, identify best
practices, and address technology and resource issues.  During the
first half of 1998, the committee has sponsored a security awareness
seminar for federal agency officials and developed plans for
improving agency access to incident response services. 

More recently, in May 1998, Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 63
was issued in response to recommendations made by the President's
Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection in October 1997.\7
PDD 63 established entities within the National Security Council, the
Department of Commerce, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to
address critical infrastructure protection, including federal agency
information infrastructures.  Specifically, the directive states that
"the Federal Government shall serve as a model to the private sector
on how infrastructure assurance is best achieved" and that federal
department and agency CIOs shall be responsible for information
assurance.  The directive requires each department and agency to
develop a plan within 180 days from the issuance of the directive in
May 1998 for protecting its own critical infrastructure, including
its cyber-based systems.  These plans are then to be subject to an
expert review process.  Other key provisions related to the security
of federal information systems include

  -- a review of existing federal, state, and local bodies charged
     with information assurance tasks;

  -- enhanced collection and analysis of information on the foreign
     information warfare threat to our critical infrastructures;

  -- establishment of a National Infrastructure Protection Center
     within the Federal Bureau of Investigation to facilitate and
     coordinate the federal government's investigation and response
     to attacks on its critical infrastructures;

  -- assessments of U.  S.  government systems' susceptibility to
     interception and exploitation; and

  -- incorporation of agency infrastructure assurance functions in
     agency strategic planning and performance measurement

We plan to follow up on the these activities as more specific
information becomes available. 

\7 Critical Foundations:  Protecting America's Infrastructures, The
Report of the President's Commission on Critical Infrastructure
Protection, October 1997. 

---------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:7

The CIO Council's efforts and the issuance of PDD 63 indicate that
senior federal officials are increasingly concerned about information
security risks and are acting on these concerns.  Improvements are
needed both at the individual agency level and in central oversight,
and coordinated actions throughout the federal community will be
needed to substantively improve federal information security. 

What needs to emerge is a coordinated and comprehensive strategy that
incorporates the worthwhile efforts already underway and takes
advantage of the expanded amount of evidence that has become
available in recent years.  The objectives of such a strategy should
be to encourage agency improvement efforts and measure their
effectiveness through an appropriate level of oversight.  This will
require a more structured approach for (1) ensuring that risks are
fully understood, (2) promoting use of the most cost-effective
control techniques, (3) testing and evaluating the effectiveness of
agency programs, and (4) acting to address identified deficiencies. 
This approach needs to be applied at individual departments and
agencies and in a coordinated fashion across government. 

In our report on governmentwide information security that is being
released today, we recommended that the Director of OMB and the
Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs develop such
a strategy.  As part of our recommendation, we stated that such a
strategy should

  -- ensure that executive agencies are carrying out the
     responsibilities outlined in laws and regulations requiring them
     to protect the security of their information resources;

  -- clearly delineate the roles of the various federal organizations
     with responsibilities related to information security;

  -- identify and rank the most significant information security
     issues facing federal agencies;

  -- promote information security risk awareness among senior agency
     officials whose critical operations rely on automated systems;

  -- identify and promote proven security tools, techniques, and
     management best practices;

  -- ensure the adequacy of information technology workforce skills;

  -- ensure that the security of both financial and nonfinancial
     systems is adequately evaluated on a regular basis;

  -- include long-term goals and objectives, including time frames,
     priorities, and annual performance goals; and

  -- provide for periodically evaluating agency performance from a
     governmentwide perspective and acting to address shortfalls. 

In commenting on a draft of our report, the OMB's Acting Deputy
Director for Management said that a plan is currently being developed
by OMB and the CIO Council, working with the National Security
Council.  The comments stated that the plan is to develop and promote
a process by which government agencies can (1) identify and assess
their existing security posture, (2) implement security best
practices, and (3) set in motion a process of continued maintenance. 
The comments also describe plans for a CIO Council-sponsored
interagency assist team that will review agency security programs. 
As of September 17, a plan had not yet been finalized and, therefore,
was not available for our review, according to an OMB official
involved in the plan's development.  We intend to review the plan as
soon as it is available. 

---------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:8

Although information security, like other types of safeguards and
controls, is an ongoing concern, it is especially important, now and
in the coming 18 months, as we approach and deal with the computer
problems associated with the Year 2000 computing crisis.  The Year
2000 crisis presents a number of security problems with which
agencies must be prepared to contend. 

For example, it is essential that agencies improve the effectiveness
of controls over their software development and change process as
they implement the modifications needed to make their systems Year
2000 compliant.  Many agencies have significant weaknesses in this
area, and most are under severe time constraints to make needed
software changes.  As a result, there is a danger that already weak
controls will be further diminished if agencies bypass or truncate
them in an effort to speed the software modification process.  This
increases the risk that erroneous or malicious code will be
implemented or that systems that do not adequately support agency
needs will be rushed into use. 

Also, agencies should strive to improve their abilities to detect and
respond to anomalies in system operations that may indicate
unauthorized intrusions, sabotage, misuse, or damage that could
affect critical operations and assets.  As illustrated by VA and SSA,
many agencies are not taking full advantage of the system and network
monitoring tools that they already have and many have not developed
reliable procedures for responding to problems once they are
identified.  Without such incident detection and response
capabilities, agencies may not be able to readily distinguish between
malicious attacks and system-induced problems, such as those stemming
from Year 2000 noncompliance, and respond appropriately. 

The Year 2000 crisis is the most dramatic example yet of why we need
to protect critical computer systems because it illustrates the
government's widespread dependence on these systems and the
vulnerability to their disruption.  However, the threat of disruption
will not end with the advent of the new millennium.  There is a
longer-term danger of attack from malicious individuals or groups,
and it is important that our government design long-term solutions to
this and other security risks. 

-------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 0:8.1

Mr.  Chairman, this concludes our statement.  We would be happy to
respond to any questions you or other members of the Committee may

*** End of document. ***