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By: Allen Sattler
The Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”) performed a cyber security risk assessment of 96 federal agencies, and it recently published its findings in the “Federal Cybersecurity Risk Determination Report and Action Plan.” The OMB reported that only 25 of the 96 agencies assessed were adequately managing their risk. Most agencies, 74% of them, were either “at risk” or “high risk.” A “high risk” rating meant that the agency either did not have in place or failed to sufficiently deploy key, fundamental cybersecurity policies, processes, and tools.
The OMB performed the risk assessment in response to an Executive Order requiring that the OMB develop a plan to adequately protect the executive branch by improving its cybesecurity. The assessment conducted by the OMB examined the agencies’ ability to identify, detect, and respond to cyber incidents. Nearly 31,000 cyber incidents affected the 96 agencies in 2016 alone.
The OMB found that most agencies had poor situational awareness. The OMB explained that those agencies often lacked the information and resources needed to understand or determine the tactics, techniques, and procedures being used by threat actors to exploit their systems. For instance, in 38% of the cyber incidents analyzed, the agencies affected could not identify the method of attack used by the threat attacker. The OMB also found that most agencies lack standardized procedures and information technology, which makes mitigating the vulnerabilities of those systems difficult. For instance, one agency operates 62 separate email services on its systems, making it “virtually impossible” to track and inspect inbound and outbound communications to prevent attacks. The OMB explained that if the email service is standardized, the agency can then manage the risk. For instance, it can inspect, detect, and quarantine malicious messages, such as phishing attempts and emails that include attachments with malicious code.
The OMB also found that agencies lack the ability to detect when large amounts of data have been pulled from their systems by an outside attacker. Only 27% of the agencies reported the ability to detect and investigate whether large amounts of data have been exfiltrated from their systems. Also, while agencies have largely complied with policies requiring them to encrypt data in transit, less than 16% of agencies achieved their targets for encrypting data at rest.
The findings by the OMB are alarming given that the federal government is often a prime target for attack by cyber criminals, as shown by previous, high-profile breaches. For instance, in 2015, the Office of Personnel Management sustained a data breach that resulted in the disclosure of fingerprint data belonging to 5.6 million federal employees.
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