Monthly Archives: April 2008

IRS Exempt from Security?

It’s TAX TIME! or is it HACK TIME?

It comes as no surprise an organization as large as the IRS is lacking some security controls, but from the material provided in several news articles it appears the IRS is lacking some fundamental elements or the application of Security Policies and standard IT Management processes is spotty at best. This is a major issue given recent news that sensitive information for the Democratic and Republican Presidential candidates was leaked by contractors.

The report findings about the IRS are items that most other organization are apparently already required to meet, according to various sources: the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, the Payment Card Industry’s Digital Secrity Standards, and even the Health Information Portability and Administration Act

Overall security for an organization is made up of the sum total of all the piece, parts, polices, and process surrounding the organization. For the IRS, security seems less than what it should be. Specifically of concern are the following passages in the article, which were likely quoted directly from a report provided to the AP:

  • [MSNBC] … system administrations circumvented authentication controls by setting up 34 unauthorized accounts that appeared to be shared-use accounts, the report found
  • [CNN.com] more than 84 percent of the 5.2 million occasions that employees accessed a system to administer and configure routers, they used “accounts” that were not properly authorized
  • [MSNBC] A review found that the IRS had authorized 374 accounts for employees and contractors that could be used to perform system administration duties. But of those, 141 either had expired authorizations or had never been properly authorized.
  • [CNN.com] … there was no record that 55 employee and contractor accounts had ever been authorized.
  • [CNN.com] In addition, nine accounts were still active, even though the employees and contractors had not accessed the system for more than 90 days, the report says.
  • [CNN.com] The report does not say whether taxpayer information was misused, but says it is continuing to review security to see whether changes made to the computer system were appropriate or warranted.

Unauthorized accounts made unknown, untracked, and potentially unauthorized changes to systems and networks at the IRS? Multiple users share the same administrative account for making changes to multiple systems? Accounts were unused and still active after 90 days of inactivity? Log reviews are not conducted?
We are talking about the Internal Revenue Service, right??

For any organization reading this thinking, we have those same issues – what’s the big deal?

  1. Unauthorized accounts making potentially unauthorized changes = a potential security breach
  2. Multiple users sharing administrative account access = inability to determine who made what change
  3. Unused accounts still active after 90 days = even Microsoft gets this one right!
  4. No Log Reviews = no proof that a breach happened, no notice that a breach is in progress, and no idea how wide spread an attack is/was

A popular statistic among security professionals is that most security incidents are caused by insiders violating security protocols, policies, or processes; percentage is over 70% of all security incidents are caused by insiders. Given the IRS’ report findings, this is again a serious issue.

The underlying problem at the IRS is likely the same problem that other businesses face, how to be secure without security getting in the way? The simple answer: Security is a mindset. Either management gets it and supports it or they don’t and authorize exceptions to policy under the guise of “Just get it done.” This “get it done” approach completes projects on-time, often avoids cost-overruns due to last minute security bolt-ons, and usually leaves system or process gaps that can be taken advantage of by disgruntled or otherwise motivated employees.

What’s the solution?

A realistic hard look at how an organization views security, how management feels about the impacts of security, and ultimatley what costs an organization is willing to pay for security. In the case of the IRS, “The IRS issued a statement Monday saying it had “taken a number of steps to improve the control and monitoring of routers and switches.” — [MSNBC]

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