Audit finds Department of Homeland Security's security is insecure

The agency that keeps America safe runs un-patched Flash, and worse besides


The United States' Department of Homeland Security could do more to keep its IT systems secure, a government report has found.

In an agency-wide audit titled "Evaluation of DHS' Information Security Program for Fiscal Year 2017" (PDF), the DHS's watchdog, the Office of Inspector General (OIG), concluded that DHS "could protect its information and systems more fully and effectively."

Based on a scale of five possible maturity levels – 1) ad hoc; 2) defined; 3) consistently implemented; 4) managed and measurable; and 5) optimized – DHS' information security program rated level three in three of the five areas evaluated, shy of the passing grade, level 4.

DHS fell short implementing the various configuration settings required to protect systems, continued using unsupported operation systems, failed to patch critical vulnerabilities quickly, failed to monitor software licenses on unclassified systems, and didn't plan well enough for recovery from service disruptions.

The report, dated March 1 and released on Wednesday, March 7, found that as of June 30, 2017, 64 systems lacked the authority to operate, based on government security criteria. Of these, 16 were classified national security systems and 48 were unclassified systems.

The results nonetheless represent an improvement over 2016 when 79 unclassified systems were deemed insufficiently protected.

According to the report, the foremost reason that the DHS failed to meet its security goals was lack of security talent.

Among the issues identified were:

Exchange folders were indexed in cache mode, which means user emails could be accessed if the machine was compromised.

Registry auditing was not always enabled, thereby allowing unattributed changes to the Windows registry.

Anonymous access to shared network drives was not always disabled.

The report also scolds DHS for continuing to use unsupported operating systems. DHS, the Coast Guard, and the Secret Service were all found to be using Windows Server 2003 after Microsoft's July 2015 discontinuation of support.

The OIG also noted that Windows workstations at DHS, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Coast Guard were missing a variety of patches.

"Windows 2008 and 2012 operating systems were missing security patches for Oracle Java, an unsupported version of Internet Explorer, and a vulnerable version of Microsoft’s Sidebar and Gadgets applications," the report says. "Some of the missing security patches dated back to July 2013."

A number of Windows 8.1 and Windows 7 workstations were missing key security patches, including the WannaCry fix, various browser updates, and patches for Adobe Flash, Shockwave, and Acrobat flaws.

The report concludes that the observed deficiencies run contrary to the President’s Cybersecurity Executive Order and demonstrate the need for stronger security oversight.

"Until DHS overcomes challenges to addressing its systemic information security weaknesses, it will remain unable to ensure that its information systems adequately protect the sensitive data they store and process," the report concludes.

A DHS spokesperson was not immediately available to address the findings but the report indicates that DHS concurs with the report's recommendations and intends to address the concerns raised by the end of September, 2018. ®

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