Cybersecurity: State Needs to Expeditiously Implement Risk Management and Other Key Practices

This post first appeared on GAO Reports. Read the original article.

What GAO Found

The Department of State has documented a cybersecurity risk management program that meets federal requirements. Specifically, the department has identified risk management roles and responsibilities and developed a risk management strategy. However, State has not fully implemented its program to identify and monitor risk to assets and the information maintained on its systems, as shown in the figure below.

Examples of State’s Progress in Implementing Its Cybersecurity Risk Management Program

Until the department implements required risk management activities, it lacks assurance that its security controls are operating as intended. Moreover, State is likely not fully aware of information security vulnerabilities and threats affecting mission operations.

State’s incident response processes for detecting, responding to, and recovering from cybersecurity incidents generally align with federal guidance by requiring the department to establish an incident handling capability for its information systems. For example, State’s Cyber Incident Response Team and other units within its Monitoring and Incident Response Division provide the capability to identify active and potential threats to the department’s network security 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
However, the department has not fully implemented processes that support its incident response program. For example, State has not fully updated and tested information system contingency plans to ensure continuity of operations nor configured its centralized inventory management database to identify asset inventory information from all available data sources.

Further, State has not adequately secured its IT infrastructure to support its incident response program. This includes replacing the 23,689 hardware systems and 3,102 occurrences of network and server operating system software installations that have reached end-of-life. Certain installations of operating system software had reached end-of-life over 13 years ago.

Without fully implemented incident response processes and an adequately secured IT infrastructure to support State’s incident response program by, among other things, updating outdated or unsupported products, State’s IT infrastructure is vulnerable to exploits. Furthermore, the department risks being unable to fully detect, investigate, and mitigate cybersecurity-related incidents.

In the last several years, State has taken a number of steps to clarify and strengthen the role of the Chief Information Officer (CIO). For example, in October 2020, State issued a memo and matrix outlining the roles and responsibilities for cybersecurity of State’s CIO and others.

Nevertheless, the ability of State’s CIO to secure the department’s IT systems is limited due to shared management responsibilities and a lack of communication. In State’s IT structure, the CIO manages State’s main network and sets department-wide standards, but bureaus perform many activities independently, purchasing much of their own equipment, managing many of their own IT systems, and obtaining their own funding. In addition, a lack of communication among the CIO, Information Resource Management, and the bureaus also hampers the CIO’s ability to secure the department’s IT systems. For example, this created confusion among information system security officers about the applicability of IT-related requirements. State’s IT structure, insulated culture (i.e., bureaus operating independently), and the lack of communication between the CIO and the bureaus is responsible for many of the deficiencies identified in this report, as shown in the figure below.

Examples of Deficiencies at State Due to Its IT Structure and Insulated Culture

In October 2021, the CIO noted that the roles and responsibilities matrix needed to be updated to better reflect the specific cyber functions and activities that department leadership and bureaus engage in throughout State. Until State addresses these and other deficiencies, the CIO faces challenges managing and overseeing the department’s cybersecurity program, including risk management and incident response, and the department’s systems remain vulnerable.

Why GAO Did This Study

The security of State’s IT systems is vital to promoting an open, interoperable, and reliable information and communications infrastructure in the department.

GAO was asked to review State’s cybersecurity practices. This report assesses the extent to which (1) State has implemented a cybersecurity risk management program; (2) State has a process and supporting infrastructure to detect, respond to, and recover from cybersecurity incidents; and (3) State’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) is able to secure its IT systems department-wide.

To conduct this work, GAO reviewed federal laws and guidance and compared them to department policies. GAO also analyzed samples of IT risk, incident response, and configuration data for selected enterprise-wide systems and 16 embassies and consular locations. Additionally, GAO interviewed State officials from the Bureau of Information Resource Management and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security with primary responsibility for managing and securing State’s IT systems and networks. GAO also met with high-level officials at the Bureau of Consular Affairs, given that it operates more IT systems than any other bureau.

This is a public version of a sensitive report with limited distribution. In response to a request from State officials, GAO excluded from this public report information deemed sensitive, such as specific post locations, system names, and technologies as well as a specific weakness.

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