Information Security: The Proposed Computer Security Enhancement Act of 1999

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-09-30.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                          United States General Accounting Office

GAO                       Testimony
                          Before the Subcommittee on Technology, Committee on
                          Science, House of Representatives

For Release on Delivery
Expected at
1:30 p.m.
                          INFORMATION SECURITY
September 30, 1999

                          The Proposed Computer
                          Security Enhancement Act
                          of 1999
                          Statement of Keith A. Rhodes
                          Director, Office of Computer and Information Technology
                          Accounting and Information Management Division

                      Madam Chairwoman and Members of the Subcommittee:

                      Thank you for asking me to participate in today's hearing on the proposed
                      Computer Security Enhancement Act of 1999 (H.R. 2413). The legislation
                      seeks to address the dramatic advances in information technology that
                      have occurred since the Computer Security Act of 19871−advances that
                      have significantly increased risks to our computer systems and, more
                      importantly, to the critical operations and infrastructures they support. In
                      particular, H.R. 2413 aims to reinforce the role of the National Institute of
                      Standards and Technology (NIST), whose mission is to provide guidance
                      and technical assistance to government and industry to protect unclassified
                      information systems.

                      Today, I would like to discuss (1) the urgent need to strengthen computer
                      security across the federal government, (2) the current and future privacy
                      concerns with any computer security legislation, (3) our views on the
                      proposed act, and (4) what can be done to further strengthen security
                      program management at individual agencies as well as governmentwide
                      leadership, coordination, and oversight.

The Urgent Need to    As hearings by this Subcommittee have recently emphasized, risks to the
                      security of our government's computer systems are significant, and they
Strengthen Computer   are growing. The dramatic increase of computer interconnectivity and the
Security for the      popularity of the Internet, while facilitating access to information, are
                      factors that also make it easier for individuals and groups with malicious
Federal Government    intentions to intrude into inadequately protected systems and use such
                      access to obtain sensitive information, commit fraud, or disrupt operations.
                      Further, the number of individuals with computer skills is increasing, and
                      intrusion, or “hacking,” techniques are readily available.

                      Attacks on and misuse of federal computer and telecommunications
                      resources are of increasing concern because these resources are virtually
                      indispensable for carrying out critical operations and protecting sensitive
                      data and assets. For example, system break-ins at the Department of the

                       The primary objectives of this act were to provide for (1) a computer standards program
                      within the National Institute of Standards and Technology, (2) security and privacy for
                      information in federal computer systems not covered by national security restrictions, and
                      (3) training in security matters for persons involved in the management, operation, and use
                      of federal computer systems.

                      Page 1                                                                 GAO/T-AIMD-99-302
Treasury could place billions of dollars of annual federal receipts and
payments at risk of fraud and large amounts of sensitive taxpayer data at
risk of inappropriate disclosure. At the Department of Defense, operations
such as mobilizing reservists, paying soldiers, and managing supplies could
be affected as well as warfighting capability. At the Health Care Financing
Administration, billions of dollars of claim payments and sensitive medical
information could be affected.

Over the past year, this Subcommittee has focused2 on a series of break-ins
of federal web sites and the “Melissa” computer virus.3 While these
incidents resulted in relatively limited damage, they demonstrated the
formidable challenge that the federal government faces in protecting its
information systems assets and sensitive data. For example, Melissa and
other recent viruses, such as “Explore Zip,”4 showed just how quickly
attacks can proliferate due to the intricate and extensive connectivity of
today's networks−in just days after the virus was unleashed, there were
widespread reports of “infections” throughout the country. They also
demonstrated that vulnerabilities in commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS)
products, which federal agencies are increasingly relying on to support
critical federal operations, can be easily exploited to attack all their users.

Because of the increasing reliance on the Internet and standard COTS
products, as well as the increasing improvements in computer attack tools
and techniques (as evidenced in the additional capability and techniques
deployed in the recent virus attacks), it is likely that the next virus will
propagate faster, do more damage, and be more difficult to detect and
counter. Yet audits reports issued by us and agency inspectors general
since 1996 have found that many agencies are not prepared to protect
themselves from these evolving threats.

  Information Security: The Melissa Computer Virus Demonstrates Urgent Need for Stronger
Protection Over Systems and Sensitive Data (GAO/T-AIMD-99-146, April 15, 1999),
Information Security: Recent Attacks on Federal Web Sites Underscore Need for Stronger
Information Security Management (GAO/T-AIMD-99-223, June 24, 1999), and Information
Security: Answers to Posthearing Questions (GAO/AIMD-99-272R, August 9, 1999).
 Melissa was a “macro virus” that could affect users of Microsoft's Word 97 or Word 2000
word processing software. Macro viruses are computer viruses that use an application's
own macro programming language to reproduce themselves. The viruses can inflict damage
to the document or to other computer software.
 ExploreZip was a virus designed to destroy electronic files, degrade network performance,
and eventually cause a denial of service on electronic mail servers.

Page 2                                                                GAO/T-AIMD-99-302
                          It is imperative, therefore, that the federal government swiftly implement
                          long-term solutions both at individual agencies and governmentwide to
                          protect systems and sensitive data. As I will further discuss today, these
                          include strengthening security management by individual agencies,
                          clarifying the roles of various federal organizations with responsibilities
                          related to information security, identifying and ranking the most significant
                          information security issues facing federal agencies, ensuring the adequacy
                          of information technology workforce skills, periodically evaluating and
                          testing agency information security practices, and assuring high-level
                          executive branch leadership.

                          In recent years, NIST has had a valuable role in helping agencies to protect
                          unclassified information systems and addressing advances in security
                          technology. Since enactment of the Computer Security Act of 1987, NIST
                          has had the responsibility for setting computer security standards for all
                          federal agency systems except national security systems. National security
                          system standards are set by the National Security Agency. NIST has also
                          undertaken efforts to raise awareness of information technology
                          vulnerabilities and protection requirements, facilitate the development of
                          new technologies to provide system and network protection, and develop
                          guidance to ensure effective security planning and management.

Computer Security         Developing and implementing information security legislation can be a
                          delicate balancing act. The need to protect sensitive data and systems must
Legislation and Privacy   be weighed not only against cost and feasibility concerns but also the
Concerns                  privacy and security interests of individual citizens and private businesses
                          as well as national security and law enforcement agencies. However,
                          without computer security, privacy cannot be assured.

                          For individuals and the private sector, the Internet is rapidly becoming an
                          increasingly popular avenue of doing business. A study jointly sponsored
                          by the University of Texas Center for Research in Electronic Commerce
                          and Cisco Systems, Inc.5 found that the Internet economy generated more
                          than $300 billion in U.S. revenue and was responsible for 1.2 million jobs in
                          1998. The study also found that Internet commerce is growing at a much
                          faster rate than expected−in 1998, total electronic commerce exceeded
                          $102 billion for U.S.-based companies. Not surprisingly, security and

                              See www.internetindicators.com for details on this study's findings.

                          Page 3                                                                     GAO/T-AIMD-99-302
privacy concerns have increased along with the popularity of electronic
commerce. Customers are primarily concerned with credit card fraud,
which has increased considerably over the past several years. Businesses
are interested in protecting customers as well as their own information
assets from competitors, vandals, criminals, suppliers, and foreign

An important part of the solution to these security concerns is
cryptography. Information that has been properly authenticated and
encrypted cannot be understood or interpreted by those lacking the
appropriate cryptographic key. While information vulnerabilities cannot be
eliminated through the use of any single tool, cryptography can help
businesses ensure the confidentiality and integrity of information in transit
and storage and verify the asserted identity of individuals and computer

However, national security and law enforcement concerns must be
considered as cryptographic tools become increasingly available. For
example, encryption can prevent law enforcement authorities from gaining
access to information needed to investigate and prosecute criminal activity.
It can also threaten intelligence gathering for national security purposes.

At the same time, the use of encryption by the private sector can benefit
law enforcement and national security interests. According to the National
Research Council, by protecting the trade secrets and proprietary
information of businesses, encryption can reduce economic espionage and
thus support the job of law enforcement. By helping protect nationally
critical information systems and networks (e.g., banking,
telecommunications, and electric power) against unauthorized penetration,
encryption can support the national security of the United States.6

Not only does this complex web of interests make it difficult to draft
effective security legislation, it also makes it challenging to develop
cryptographic and other security technology. Without obtaining agreement
among individual users and businesses and law enforcement, national
security, and other authorities on requirements, there is no way to build
and implement the new technology or to establish standards that will be
universally accepted.

 Cryptography's Role in Securing the Information Society, National Research Council, May

Page 4                                                               GAO/T-AIMD-99-302
The Computer Security   The proposed Computer Security Enhancement Act of 1999 takes a number
                        of steps to address the proliferation of networked systems and the
Enhancement Act         corresponding need for better protection over sensitive data belonging to
Takes Positive Steps    both government and the private sector. If effectively implemented, these
                        provisions can have a positive impact in addressing information security
Toward Addressing       problems identified in our audits.
Dramatic Advances in
Information             The bill particularly focuses on the role NIST plays in assisting federal
                        agencies to protect their systems and promote technology solutions to
Technology              security protection based on private sector offerings. While this legislation
                        provides an improved basis for protecting critical federal assets, it is
                        important to recognize that there is no legislative substitute that could be
                        put in place to provide the increased management attention and due
                        diligence necessary to implement and ensure the effectiveness of
                        information security controls. It is also important to ensure that NIST
                        retain the ability to develop security standards for unclassified data and
                        decide which industry standards are appropriate for federal agencies, and
                        that agencies themselves consistently implement such standards.

                        I would now like to comment on a few provisions in the bill that focus on
                        NIST's role in helping agencies to protect their systems and ensure that
                        NIST will play a vital role in helping to pioneer new security technologies.

                        First, the bill requires NIST to provide guidance and assistance to federal
                        agencies in the protection of interconnected systems and to coordinate
                        federal response efforts related to unauthorized access to federal computer
                        systems. We support this measure, as federal response efforts have been
                        sporadic and uneven to date. However, it will be important to make sure
                        that NIST has the capability and authority needed to carry out this function.

                        Second, the bill requires the Under Secretary of Commerce to establish a
                        clearinghouse of information available to the public on information
                        security threats. We support the establishment of a clearinghouse; however,
                        to be effective, it will be important for the information provided by the
                        clearinghouse to be complete and useful for analyses of widespread
                        attacks. As you may recall, when the Melissa virus surfaced earlier this
                        year, we found that there was no single place to obtain complete data on
                        which agencies were hit and how they were affected. Moreover, there were
                        no data available that quantified the impact of the virus in terms of
                        productivity lost or the value of data lost. Also, it may be necessary to
                        clarify requirements for reporting incidents. Because there are several

                        Page 5                                                      GAO/T-AIMD-99-302
entities already providing information on information security threats−
including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the FedCIRC7− it may be
unclear to many agencies where incidents should be reported. Finally, it is
important to recognize that by itself, a clearinghouse is not a panacea to
information security problems across the federal government. Agencies
themselves must still use this information effectively to assess risks to their
own computer-supported operations and to develop and implement sound
management controls.

Third, the bill requires the National Research Council to conduct a study to
assess the desirability of public key infrastructures (PKI) and the
technologies required for the establishment of such key infrastructures.
Public key cryptography uses two electronic keys: a public key and a
private key. A PKI provides the means to bind keys to their owners and
helps in the distribution of reliable public keys in large networks.8 As the
use of the Internet by federal agencies, businesses, and citizens continues
to expand, it is important that the benefits as well as the vulnerabilities of
PKI as well as implementation concerns be thoroughly examined. For
instance, the widespread use of PKI technology can help increase the
confidence of electronic transactions, but to be effective, PKI components
need to interoperate regardless of the source of the equipment and
software involved, and they also need to be adequately secured. NIST has
already been working with industry and technical groups to advance PKI
technology and to develop standards that provide a basis for interoperable
components, and we support these efforts.

Fourth, the bill establishes a National Policy Panel for Digital Signatures
for the purpose of exploring issues relevant to the development of a
national digital signature infrastructure based on uniform standards and of
developing model practices and standards associated with certification
authorities. Again, with the explosive growth of the Internet, there is an
increasing demand for confidentiality and integrity with electronic

FedCIRC−the Federal Computer Incident Response Capability−is a reporting center at the
General Services Administration.
 According to NIST, public and private keys are mathematically related but the private key
cannot be determined from the public key. The public key can be known by anyone while
the private key is kept secret by its owner. As long as there is a strong binding between the
owner and the owner's public key, the identity of the originator of a message can be traced
to the owner of the private key. Public keys may be bound to their owners by public key
certificates. These certificates contain information such as the owner's name and the
associate public key and are issued by a reliable certification authority.

Page 6                                                                   GAO/T-AIMD-99-302
                         commerce transactions. This means that the receiver of an electronic
                         commerce message must be assured that the message came from the actual
                         sender, that no part of the message has been altered during transmission,
                         and that the contents of the transaction have been kept confidential. NIST
                         has already been working with industry to test digital signature technology
                         and to develop new approaches. We also support these efforts as they will
                         ensure that NIST is well-positioned to assist in electronic commerce
                         standardization efforts.

The Need for a Broader   As stated earlier, it is important to recognize that in the long term, a more
                         comprehensive governmentwide strategy needs to emerge to ensure that
Information Security     critical federal assets and operations are protected from evolving security
Improvement              threats. This strategy needs to address two of the most fundamental
                         deficiencies in federal computer security: (1) poor agency security program
Framework                planning and management and (2) ineffective governmentwide oversight.

                         At the agency level, a number of factors have consistently contributed to
                         poor federal information security, including insufficient awareness and
                         understanding of risks, a shortage of staff with needed technical expertise,
                         a lack of systems and security architectures to facilitate implementation
                         and management of security controls, and various problems associated
                         with the availability and use of specific technical controls and monitoring
                         tools. A more important underlying problem, however, is the lack of
                         security program management and oversight to ensure that risks are
                         identified and addressed and that controls are working as intended.

                         In our September 1998 report9 on the overall state of federal information
                         security, we noted that of 17 agencies where security planning was
                         reviewed, all had deficiencies. Many agencies had not developed security
                         plans for major systems based on risk, had not formally documented
                         security policies, and had not implemented programs for testing and
                         evaluating the effectiveness of the controls they relied on.

                         Information Security: Serious Weaknesses Place Critical Federal Operations and Assets at
                         Risk (GAO/AIMD-98-92, September 1998).

                         Page 7                                                               GAO/T-AIMD-99-302
Recently, for example, we reported10 that penetration tests we conducted at
one of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) 10
field centers showed that mission-critical systems responsible for
command and control of spacecraft as well as the processing and
distributing of scientific data returned from space were vulnerable to
unauthorized access. A major contributing factor to our ability to penetrate
these systems was that NASA was not effectively and consistently
managing information technology security throughout the agency.
Specifically, it was not effectively assessing risks to its systems,
implementing security policies and controls, monitoring policy compliance
or the effectiveness of controls, providing required computer security
training, and centrally coordinating responses to security incidents. In
commenting on our report, NASA concurred with our findings and is taking
actions to implement our recommendations.

To help agencies implement the kind of management framework that is
required to effectively respond to evolving security requirements, in May
1998, we issued an executive guide entitled Information Security
Management: Learning From Leading Organizations (GAO/AIMD-98-68). It
describes a framework for managing risks through an ongoing cycle of
activities coordinated by a central focal point. The guide, which is based on
the best practices of organizations noted for superior information security
programs, has been endorsed by the Chief Information Officers (CIO)
Council. By adopting the practices recommended by the guide, agencies
can be better prepared to protect their systems, detect attacks, and react to
security breaches.

With regard to governmentwide oversight, over the last several years, a
number of efforts have been initiated to strengthen central oversight and
coordination for information security. For example, the Security
Committee established by the CIO Council has taken steps to promote
security awareness, improve agency access to incident response services,
and support agency improvement efforts. Also, Presidential Decision
Directive 63, issued in May 1998, called for a range of actions intended to
improve federal agency computer security programs, establish a
partnership between the government and private sector, and improve our
nation's ability to detect and respond to serious attacks. It created several
new entities for developing and implementing a strategy for critical

 Information Security: Many NASA Mission-Critical Systems Face Serious Risks
(GAO/AIMD-99-47, May 20, 1999).

Page 8                                                              GAO/T-AIMD-99-302
infrastructure protection and it tasked federal agencies with developing
critical infrastructure protection plans. Since then, a variety of activities
have taken place, including development and review of individual agency
protection plans, identification and evaluation of information security
standards and best practices, and efforts to build communication links with
the private sector.

However, a number of issues still need to be resolved. At present, for
example, there is no mechanism, such as required independent audits, for
routinely testing and evaluating the effectiveness of agency information
security programs.11 As a result, little useful information is routinely
available for measuring the effectiveness of agency security programs and,
thus, holding agency managers accountable and identifying and addressing
the most serious problems. Also, the proliferation of organizations with
overlapping oversight and assistance responsibilities is a source of
potential confusion among agency personnel and may be an inefficient use
of scarce technical resources. Exacerbating this problem is confusion over
which information security standards and guidance are mandatory, rather
than optional.

Thus, as we previously recommended in 1998,12 to substantively improve
protection over sensitive data and critical infrastructures, the Congress
needs to consider stronger measures that would ensure that executive
agencies are doing the following.

• Carrying out their responsibilities outlined in laws and regulations
  requiring them to protect their information resources.
• Clearly delineating the roles of the various federal organizations with
  responsibilities related to security.
• Identifying and ranking the most significant information security issues
  facing federal agencies.
• Promoting information security risk awareness among senior agency
  officials whose critical operations rely on automated systems.
• Strengthening information technology workforce skills.
• Evaluating the security of systems on a regular basis.

 Some independent testing of systems is done through agency annual financial statement

Page 9                                                              GAO/T-AIMD-99-302
                   • Providing for periodically evaluating agency performance from a
                     governmentwide perspective and acting to address shortfalls.

                   Madam Chairwoman, this concludes my testimony. I will be happy to
                   answer any questions you or Members of the Subcommittee may have.

Contacts and       For information about this testimony, please contact Keith Rhodes at (202)
                   512-6415. Cristina Chaplain and Chris Martin made key contributions to
Acknowledgements   this testimony.

(511862)   Leter   Page 10                                                   GAO/T-AIMD-99-302
Ordering Information

The first copy of each GAO report and testimony is free.
Additional copies are $2 each. Orders should be sent to the
following address, accompanied by a check or money order made
out to the Superintendent of Documents, when necessary, VISA and
MasterCard credit cards are accepted, also.

Orders for 100 or more copies to be mailed to a single address are
discounted 25 percent.

Orders by mail:

U.S. General Accounting Office
P.O. Box 37050
Washington, DC 20013

or visit:

Room 1100
700 4th St. NW (corner of 4th and G Sts. NW)
U.S. General Accounting Office
Washington, DC

Orders may also be placed by calling (202) 512-6000
or by using fax number (202) 512-6061, or TDD (202) 512-2537.

Each day, GAO issues a list of newly available reports and
testimony. To receive facsimile copies of the daily list or any list
from the past 30 days, please call (202) 512-6000 using a touchtone
phone. A recorded menu will provide information on how to obtain
these lists.

For information on how to access GAO reports on the INTERNET,
send an e-mail message with “info” in the body to:


or visit GAO’s World Wide Web Home Page at:

United States                       Bulk Rate
General Accounting Office      Postage & Fees Paid
Washington, D.C. 20548-0001           GAO
                                 Permit No. GI00
Official Business
Penalty for Private Use $300

Address Correction Requested