Executive Perspectives

US GAO Report Highlights Incident Response Shortcomings

On May 30th, 2014, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report titled “Information Security: Agencies Need to Improve Cyber Incident Response Practices.” GAO conducted its research by randomly selecting six government agencies, then selecting a statistically significant number of incident reports (40 from each organization), documented during 2012. GAO then evaluated how the agencies performed, based on the reports. GAO compared the documented incident response actions to requirements set by the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002 (FISMA) and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Special Publication 800-61, Computer Security Incident Handling Guide. The results were surprising and I will explain the significance of several excerpts in this post.

First, “agencies had recorded actions to halt the spread of, or otherwise limit, the damage caused by an incident in about 75 percent of incidents government-wide. However, agencies did not demonstrate such actions for about 25 percent of incidents government-wide.”

This comment references the need to contain an intrusion. If a government agency fails to completely contain an intrusion, any gaps leave the adversary freedom of maneuver. He can exploit the containment failure to proliferate to other systems and remain in control of an organization’s systems. Anything less than 100% containment is essentially 0% containment.

Second, “for about 77 percent of incidents government-wide, the agencies had identified and eliminated the remaining elements of the incident. However, agencies did not demonstrate that they had effectively eradicated incidents in about 23 percent of incidents.”

This comment references the need to remove an intruder from a compromised organization. Similar to the need for 100% containment, one must also achieve 100% removal in order to completely frustrate the adversary. If an adversary retains access to even one system, he can rebuild his position and retake control of the victim.

Third, “agencies returned their systems to an operationally ready state for about 81 percent of incidents government-wide. However, they had not consistently documented remedial actions on whether they had taken steps to prevent an incident from reoccurring. Specifically, agencies did not demonstrate that they had acted to prevent an incident from reoccurring in about 49 percent of incidents government-wide.”

This comment describes the need to learn from intrusions and implement remediation. If a victim fails to make the environment tougher for the adversary, the intruder will likely return using the same techniques that he utilized to first gain access.

Finally, a search of the entire GAO report for the word “strategy” produced zero hits. Beyond being disappointed by the three excerpts I highlighted above, I am dismayed to not hear GAO discuss the need for a security strategy for organizations. Incident response is not a technical action. IR should be part of a business process, done as part of an operation that implements a strategy understood and approved by the highest levels of management. Furthermore, the GAO report did not really evaluate the consequences of the three documented failures and the lack of concrete security strategies. Had GAO taken that step, they might have concluded that the agencies continue to face severe security challenges.