Government Networks Are too Old to Secure

The quest for answers regarding the recent breach that put every federal employee’s personal information at risk has begun. As with most government investigations into government screw ups this one is taking the form of public questionings of mid-level federal employees. Buried within the extensive waste of time that was the most recent public hearing were a few nuggets of pure gold. For starters the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Director, Katherine Archuleta, let some information slip that should be very concerning to everybody:

During testimony today in a grueling two-hour hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Director Katherine Archuleta claimed that she had recognized huge problems with the agency’s computer security when she assumed her post 18 months ago. But when pressed on why systems had not been protected with encryption, she said, “It is not feasible to implement on networks that are too old.” She added that the agency is now working to encrypt data within its networks.

Apparently government networks are too old to secure. The only conclusion one could draw from this is that involved the government networks are running on unsupported software. Perhaps most of the computers in its networks are still running Windows XP or something older. Perhaps the hardware they’re using is so ancient that it cannot actually encrypt and decrypt data without a noticeable performance hit. What is clear is that somebody really screwed up. Whether it was network administrators failing to update software and hardware or bean counters failing to set aside funding for modernization the network that holds the personal information for every federal employee was not properly maintained. And this is the same organization that has a great deal of personal information about every American citizen. The federal government has your name, address, phone number, Social Security Number, date of birth, and more sitting in its janky-ass network. Think about that for a moment while you contemplate the importance of privacy from the government.

But old networks aren’t the only problem with the government’s networks:

But even if the systems had been encrypted, it would have likely not mattered. Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for Cybersecurity Dr. Andy Ozment testified that encryption would “not have helped in this case” because the attackers had gained valid user credentials to the systems that they attacked—likely through social engineering. And because of the lack of multifactor authentication on these systems, the attackers would have been able to use those credentials at will to access systems from within and potentially even from outside the network.

Gaining valid user credentials shouldn’t allow one to obtain personal information on every government employee. This admission indicates that every user on the network must either have administrative rights or the data isn’t protected in any way against unauthorized access from internal users. Any network administrator worth a damn knows that you only give users the privileges they require. Developers of systems that handle sensitive personal information should know that any access to said information would require approval from one or more higher ups. If I’m a user and want to access somebody’s Social Security Number there should be some kind of overseer that must approve the request.

Many network administrators haven’t implemented multifactor authentication but this omission is inexcusable for a network that contained so much personal information. Relying on user names and passwords to protect massive databases of personal information is gross negligence. With options such as YubiKey, RSA Secure ID, and Google Authenticator there is no excuse for not implementing multifactor authentication on networks with so much sensitive information.

Well all know governments love oversight and this is no exception. The systems in question were inspected by a government overseer, were deemed to not be properly secure, and nothing was done about it:

He referred to OPM’s own inspector general reports and hammered Seymour in particular for the eleven major systems out of 47 that had not been properly certified as secure—which were not contractor systems but systems operated by OPM’s own IT department. “They were in your office, which is a horrible example to be setting,” Chaffetz told Seymour. In total, 65 percent of OPM’s data was stored on those uncertified systems.

Chaffetz pointed out in his opening statement that for the past eight years, according to OPM’s own Inspector General reports, “OPM’s data security posture was akin to leaving all your doors and windows unlocked and hoping nobody would walk in and take the information.”

Here we see one of the biggest failures with government oversight, the lack of enforcement. When an inspector deems systems to be unfit those systems should be made fit. If they’re not made fit people charged with maintaining them should be replaced. There is no point in oversight without follow through.

When people claim they have nothing to hide from the government they seldom stop to consider who can gain access to its data. It’s not just the law enforcers. Due to general incompetence when it comes to security it’s potentially anybody with valid user credentials. And valid user credentials are obtainable by exploiting the weakest link in any computer network, the user. According to Dr. Andy Ozment the credentials were likely obtained through social engineering, which is something most people can fall prey to. Because of the lack of multifactor authentication that means anybody who can social engineer user credentials from a government employee potentially has access to all of the data collected by the government on yourself. Is that something you’re honestly OK with? Do you really want a government this incompetent at protecting the personal data of its own employees holding a lot of personal data about you?