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Report Details Structural Flaws in HHS’ Information Security

August 13, 2015
by Rajiv Leventhal
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A report from the House Energy and Commerce Committee has detailed details serious structural flaws at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) and its operating divisions, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which have led to poor information security.

The report, entitled, “Information Security at the Department of Health and Human Services,” was released by Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy (R-PA), and follows the committee’s yearlong investigation. According to the report’s executive summary, to the committee’s knowledge, “five HHS operating divisions have been breached using unsophisticated means within the last three years. Of concern to the committee, officials at the affected agencies often struggled to provide accurate, clear, and sufficient information on the security incidents during the committee’s investigation.” These problems have left HHS vulnerable to cyberattacks, which the report outlines have been numerous the past few years.

The report demonstrates that throughout HHS and its operating divisions, when information security is put under the purview of the chief information officer, operations become the priority concern while security becomes a secondary interest. Included in the report are a number of recommendations to improve information security at HHS and its operating divisions. Most notably, the report recommends making the chief information security officer (CISO) the “primary authority for information security” and moving all information security functions (including the CISO) to the general or chief counsel’s office, where reducing and mitigating risk is the primary function.

“What we found is alarming and unacceptable. At a time when sensitive information is held by so many in the public and private sectors, Americans should not have to worry that the U.S. government is left so vulnerable to attack. With the recent Office of Personnel Management attack serving as another example of how wrong things can go, this report pulls back the curtain and sheds light on serious deficiencies in HHS’s information security practices,” said Upton and Murphy.

Upton and Murphy concluded, “While it is impossible to fully protect against cyber attacks, we have a responsibility to approach these issues with necessary foresight and diligence to minimize vulnerabilities and maximize security. We look forward to working with HHS, FDA, NIH, and others to develop solutions to better protect this information. Unfortunately, the bar has been set low and we have nowhere to go but up.”

In May, a report from the HHS’ Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that information security at HHS needs improvement because controls have not been fully implemented and monitored.

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