Attacks on federal networks lead to concern for DHS

The House Homeland Security Committee wants to know whether the Homeland Security Department's networks have been hacked.

In a letter to Scott Charbo, DHS' chief information officer, three chairmen and three ranking members asked DHS to answer 13 questions about the security of the department's information technology systems.

The letter follows a hearing by the committee's Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity and Science and Technology Subcommittee about hacks into Commerce and State department computers in July 2006. The committee is expanding its review of federal IT systems, starting with DHS.

"We are concerned that similar incidents may be occurring within the networks of the Department of Homeland Security," the lawmakers wrote.

Lawmakers asked Charbo to respond by May 21.

"DHS takes the security and protection of its information and networks very seriously," Larry Orluskie, a DHS spokesman, told FCW.com. "We've taken many significant steps to ensure the integrity of our information systems."

Lawmakers asked DHS detailed questions:
  • What responsibility does the CIO have over DHS' networks? What is the CIO's relationship with the chief information security officer and with the CIOs and CISOs of DHS' component agencies?
  • What are DHS' information security policies and incident response plans?
  • How many and what types of incidents has DHS reported to the U.S. Computer Emergency Response Team, including those occurring between 2004 and 2007.
  • Has DHS taken an inventory of each connection to the network both inside and outside the departmental firewall? Does a complete network topology diagram exist?
  • Has DHS conducted internal and external penetration tests on its systems and made copies of all reports describing the vulnerabilities?
  • Has DHS has implemented a secure coding initiative and tested the security configuration for its software and Web applications?
  • What has the CISO's annual budget been since 2003?
  • What are DHS' top three initiatives for securing the agency's networks and how is the department measuring those?

A number of oversight organizations, including Congress, have rated DHS' IT security as weak. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) gave DHS a D for information security when he issued the 2006 Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) report card last month.

OMB said in its 2006 FISMA report to Congress that DHS had certified and accredited 85 percent of its systems, tested security controls on 89 percent of its systems and tested contingency plans on 60 percent of its systems.

"We made significant progress in overall FISMA compliance," Orluskie said. "In fact, we have enhanced the percentage of IT systems that are fully accredited from 22 percent in 2005, to 95 percent in 2006. We also increased DHS system security controls testing from 54 percent at the end of 2005, to 87 percent by the end of 2006."

DHS reported 326 incidents to U.S. CERT last year, OMB said.

The inspector general reported recently that DHS has made progress, but it has a long way to go. For instance, auditors said 27 of 35 sensitive but unclassified systems have incomplete accreditation packages. Some critical information is missing from security documents, and several DHS agencies did not meet baseline security configuration requirements, the IG said.

Jason Miller writes for Government Computer News and Federal Computer Week, 1105 Government Information Group publications.

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