WASHINGTON — Passwords written down on desks. Outdated antivirus software. “Perceived ineptitude” in information technology departments.
The federal government, which holds secrets and sensitive information ranging from nuclear blueprints to the tax returns of hundreds of millions of Americans, has for years failed to take basic steps to protect its data from hackers and thieves, records show.
In the latest example, the Office of Personnel Management is under fire for allowing its databases to be plundered by suspected Chinese cyberspies in what is being called one of the worst breaches in U.S. history. OPM repeatedly neglected to implement basic cybersecurity protections, its internal watchdog told Congress.
But the departments of Treasury, Transportation, State and Health and Human Services have significantly worse records, according to the most recent administration report to Congress under the Federal Information Security Management Act. Each of those agencies has been hacked in the last few years.
“Last year, across government, we the American people spent almost $80 billion on information technology, and it stinks,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “It doesn’t work.”
Congress can hardly escape all blame.
While President Barack Obama’s latest budget plan called for a $14 billion increase for cyberdefenses, the House proposed a budget in March that didn’t include specific funding for cybersecurity. Nor has Congress imposed much accountability on agencies that suffer breaches.
The security lapses have persisted even as cyberattacks on government networks have increased. The federal government dealt with 67,196 cyber incidents in the last fiscal year, up from 57,971 incidents the year before, according to the White House report card, which was published in February.
Missing from that document is an accounting of how many hacks were successful and what was stolen.
It’s not a new problem. The Government Accountability Office has labeled federal information security a “high-risk area” since 1997.
In 2003 it expanded the high-risk designation to include computer networks supporting the nation’s critical infrastructure.
This year, it added “personally identifiable information” to the list, just in time to see hackers steal the Social Security numbers and other private information of nearly every federal worker.
But agency managers haven’t been punished for failing to secure their networks, and little sustained attention has been paid to the many intrusions.
“No one is ever held accountable,” said James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Unlike in the corporate world, where the CEO of Target resigned last year after a breach of customer data, “it’s been penalty-free, and senior leadership doesn’t really care about this.”
The OPM debacle may change that. It has dealt the United States a major national security blow, experts say, by exposing the personal information, and foreign contacts, of millions of people with security clearances. OPM’s director, Katherine Archuleta, told a Senate hearing on Tuesday that an “adversary” gained access to the agency’s records with a credential used by a federal contractor.
After the OPM attack, the federal chief information officer, Tony Scott, ordered agencies to speed implementation of new security measures and fix vulnerabilities.
But many agencies seem incapable of good security practices, say industry experts, who call for a new approach that moves beyond perimeter defenses and into sophisticated analysis of network behavior.
Scott embraces that idea. But as the government deploys new technology to discover hacks, he said in an interview, “we’re going find out some things previously unknown. It’s going to feel like the problem is getting worse, but it’s actually getting better.”