As cyber attacks against the U.S. government skyrocket, many agencies are taking steps to improve their computer security infrastructure. But investigators say that the Federal Communications Commission mishandled almost $10 million worth of improvements and left its databases vulnerable to hackers.
When the Federal Communication Commission's computer systems were breached in Sept. 2011, it decided to take action to improve cybersecurity.
But more than a year and $10 million later, investigators found the agency is back at square one. In fact, the security improvements the FCC had taken were largely useless, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress' watchdog arm.
"FCC’s information remained at unnecessary risk of inadvertent or deliberate misuse, improper disclosure, or destruction. Further, addressing these deficiencies could require costly and time consuming rework," the report said.
The FCC is the agency that regulates broadcasts from radio to television to satellite. If Beyonce had a "wardrobe malfunction" on Sunday like the Janet Jackson Super Bowl halftime show several years ago, the FCC is in charge of handing out fines to the television networks and stations in charge of the program.
It also has taken a high-profile role in cybersecurity, creating a special office to communicate threats and solutions to the public and offering small businesses advice on how to repel attacks.
Hacking attempts on government computers are up 780 percent over the past six years, according to GAO. So when FCC security was breached, the agency started the Enhanced Secured Network (ESN) project to protect it's computers, and the White House Office of Management and Budget authorized it to spend $10 million on the improvements.
Investigators, however, found that little had been improved, mostly because FCC officials weren't sure what they needed in cybersecurity improvements.
"FCC deployed the initial components of the project without first fully defining security and functional requirements and without conducting required reviews of those requirements," GAO said.
Officials at the broadcast regulator agency didn't get control of the project from the start, investigators said, including developing a poor cost estimate, project schedule and risk assessment.
GAO said FCC officials admitted to them that the agency "lacked project management expertise" on this particular program.
The report noted this was unusual for FCC, which usually does a much better job testing and integrating new security improvements.
But without a clear idea of what they needed, FCC personnel hadn't fine-tuned the security upgrades to get the best protection, GAO said. A program to combat malicious software was installed but never fully used to help fend off attacks. Databases with stored passwords weren't always encrypted well enough.
As a result, the agency "limited the effectiveness of its security enhancements and did not sufficiently protect the initial deployments from the security threats that the project is intended to mitigate."
David Robbins, the Managing Director of FCC, said the agency would try to improve some of the mistakes noted in the GAO report, but said the security improvements have largely been successful. The investigation, he said, came at a time when the agency was trying to hurriedly make corrections, and since then improvements have been made.
"The FCC's overall network security is in a better place now as a result of the ESN project," Robbins said. "We look forward to sharing our further progress with Congress and the GAO at a later time, when these security initiatives are more fully deployed and developed."
The entire project was supposed to be completed by the end of February. But investigators expressed concern that the entire security program might have to be reworked.
"It is difficult to know whether the project’s planned completion date is realistic," GAO said. "Increased risk exists that future ESN deployments may also contain security vulnerabilities and that costly and time-consuming rework may be necessary to correct deficiencies in the completed deployments."
The Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, is the government agency that regulates broadcasts, such as radio, television, cable and satellite transmissions. The agency was founded in 1934. Some of its duties include regulating bandwidth and giving licenses to television stations.
The Government Accountability Office, or GAO, is Congress' watchdog arm and conducts investigations at lawmakers' request. The agency is often tasked with gathering information about a particular government office or program, or evaluating how well it worked.