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Security Breaches of Personal Information at Federal Agencies More than Doubles Since 2009

7:05 AM, Apr 3, 2014 • By JERYL BIER
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Millions of individuals who recently entrusted personal, medical, and financial information to the federal government while enrolling in Obamacare via Healthcare.gov may find a recent trend reported by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) rather unsettling.  The number of security breaches involving Personally Identifiable Information (PII) at federal agencies more than doubled in recent years, increasing from 10,481 in 2009 to 25,566 in 2013.  Perhaps even more disturbing, the GOA found that "none of the seven agencies [in a related study] consistently documented lessons learned from PII breaches."

A graph accompanying the GAO report illustrates the dramatic and consistent upward trend in PII-related breaches over the last several years:

A data breach may consist of something as simple as mailing documents containing PII to the wrong recipient, but also includes incidents involving massive loss of sensitive data as illustrated by these examples in the report:

  • [I]n May 2006, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reported that computer equipment containing PII on about 26.5 million veterans and active duty members of the military was stolen from the home of a VA employee. 
  • In July 2013, hackers stole a variety of PII on more than 104,000 individuals from a Department of Energy system. Types of data stolen included Social Security numbers, birth dates and locations, bank account numbers and security questions and answers...
  • In May 2012, the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board (FRTIB) reported a sophisticated cyber attack on the computer of a contractor that provided services to the Thrift Savings Plan. As a result of the attack, PII associated with approximately 123,000 plan participants was accessed. According to FRTIB, the information included 43,587 individuals' names, addresses, and Social Security numbers, and 79,614 individuals' Social Security numbers and other PII-related information. 

While the increasing number of incidents is concerning, the GAO also found that "agencies have had mixed results in addressing" information security "and most agencies had weaknesses in implementing specific security controls."  An earlier GAO report in December 2013 covered the responses to PII data breaches of seven federal agencies, including the IRS; the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency charged with implementing and running Obamacare; and the Veterans Administration (VA).  That report found agency responses broadly inconsistent.  For example:

  • only one of seven agencies reviewed had documented both an assigned risk level and how that level was determined for PII data breaches
  • only two agencies documented the number of affected individuals for each incident 
  • only two agencies notified affected individuals for all high-risk breaches
  • the seven agencies did not consistently offer credit monitoring to affected individuals
  • none of the seven agencies consistently documented lessons learned from their breach responses

The GAO report also gives a preview of an upcoming report specifically on cybersecurity at federal agencies, and preliminary results are not encouraging.  The GAO has found effective and consistent response to cyber incidents in only about 35% of cases:

While these results are still subject to revision, we estimate, based on a statistical sample of cyber incidents reported in fiscal year 2012, that the 24 major federal agencies did not effectively or consistently demonstrate actions taken in response to a detected cyber incident in about 65 percent of reported incidents.

The full GAO report on cybersecurity will be completed and issued later this spring.

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