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Report: Most Federal Agencies Face Challenges Safeguarding Sensitive Data

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Andrew Kerr Investigative Reporter

The majority of federal agencies face serious challenges protecting their IT systems from intrusion or compromise, according to a report released Wednesday by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE).

The report found that 52 of the 61 Offices of Inspector General overseeing federal agencies report challenges safeguarding sensitive data against cyber-attacks. The challenges stemmed from agencies using outdated technology and failing to recruit and maintain a skilled cybersecurity workforce.

Federal IT systems are under constant assault from hackers, and failure to safeguard those systems often leads to data breaches that expose personal information and threaten national security, the report notes.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM), for example, repels around 10 million attempted cyber intrusions every month, according to Wired. But a single breach of OPM’s defenses in 2015 by a Chinese national resulted in one of the federal government’s worst data breaches, resulting in the exposure of personal information for more than 21 million U.S. government employees and their spouses.

The OPM data breach was blamed in part due to outdated IT infrastructure, an issue faced by many federal agencies.

Cybersecurity firm Beyond Trust found in 2017 a wide swath of examples of the federal government using outdated IT infrastructures. One of the startling finds was that 47 percent of federal agencies still use Windows XP, an operating system that went out of support in April 2014.

Federal IT managers reported to Beyond Trust that using outdated software had a large impact on their ability stay in compliance and safeguard against cyber attacks.

CIGIE’s report follows up a sobering analysis by Cybersecurity firm Thales Security, which reported earlier this year that federal agency data is “under siege,” putting the private data of over 330 million Americans at risk.

Thales found that 70 percent of all federal agencies have experienced a breach of their IT infrastructure in the past, with over half of federal agencies reporting a breach within the past year.

Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency warned the House Armed Services Committee last week that cybersecurity threats faced by the United States have “evolved dramatically” in the eight years since U.S. Cyber Command was established.

“Today we face threats that have increased in sophistication, magnitude, intensity, velocity and volume, threatening our vital national security interests and economic well-being,” Rogers said.

Rogers pointed to cyber threats faced by Russia, China, Iran and North Korea during his testimony.

“Russia and China, which we see as peer or near-peer competitors, respectively, in cyberspace, remain our greatest concern,” Rogers said. “But rogue nations like Iran and North Korea have grown growing capabilities and are using aggressive methods to conduct malicious cyberspace activities.”

“Our adversaries have grown more emboldened, conducting increasingly aggressive activities to extend their influence with limited fear of consequences,” Rogers added.

“Without cyberspace superiority on today’s battlefield, risk to mission increases across all domains and endangers our security,” Rogers said.

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