GAO: Lax IRS cybersecurity puts taxpayer data in danger

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Government auditors this week slammed the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) cybersecurity infrastructure, saying the agency's lax response to previous recommendations has left taxpayer data at “increased risk of unauthorized disclosure, modification or destruction.”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) disclosed that the nation's tax collector has failed to enforce strong passwords, encrypt sensitive data and physically protect computer resources.

In addition, the IRS has improved on only 29 of 98 information security weaknesses since last year.

The IRS also grants extensive access to individuals who do not need it and installs patches late, according to the report authored by Gregory Wilshusen, GAO director of information security issues, and Nancy Kingsbury, managing director of applied research and methods.

Addressing Linda Stiff, IRS acting commissioner, the GAO recommended that the IRS update its mainframe policies to improve control and logging procedures, give specialized training to individuals with security responsibilities, enhance contractor oversight, and expand the scope of testing and evaluation controls.

The government watchdog also made 46 detailed recommendations in a separate report, identifying specific weaknesses in user identification, cryptography, configuration management and authorization.

Representatives from the GAO and IRS could not be immediately reached for comment.

Stiff, in a December letter to Wilshusen, pledged to improve her department's cybersecurity stance.

“We recognize that there is significant work to be accomplished to address our information security deficiencies, and we are taking aggressive steps to correct previously reported weaknesses and improve our overall information security program,” she said.

The IRS is a part of the U.S. Department of Treasury, which scored an F on its most recent Federal Information Security Management Act grading.

Abe Kleinfeld, chief executive officer of nCircle, a network security vendor, told today that the federal government lacks the same sense of urgency to comply with FISMA that the private sector has for meeting the requirements of the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard.

“In the private sector, what you are seeing is chief security officers getting fired, and other people losing their jobs. There are real consequences. Visa is giving people fines and sending letters to CEOs telling them that they have to comply,” he said. “There is an active process in place to make sure that people's pockets get hit if they don't comply.”

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