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Top senator blasts US Homeland Security for leaving cyber-drawbridge down

$700m a year in taxpayer cash blown on IT defenses

By Iain Thomson, 8 Jan 2015

A member of the US Senate's Homeland Security Committee has slammed the Department of Homeland Security over America's cyber-defenses: Tom Coburn (R-OK) said the agency is failing to protect the nation's IT infrastructure despite at least $700m in funding.

"The nature of cybersecurity threats – and the ability of adversaries to continuously develop new tools to defeat network defenses – means that DHS’s strategy for cybersecurity, which focuses primarily on vulnerability mitigation, will not protect the nation from the most sophisticated attacks and cybersecurity threats," a report [PDF] written and published by Senator Coburn states.

Coburn's dossier notes that the DHS bagged $61bn in government funding last year, and only assigned $706m to cybersecurity. The vast majority of those funds are spent scanning for vulnerabilities in the country's critical IT infrastructure, but its systems are weak, its approach outdated, and even the department's staff don’t follow computer security procedures properly, he states.

For example, you'd think that when it comes to maintaining its own IT infrastructure, the DHS would be pretty on the ball. But the agency is poor at patching against known vulnerabilities (in some cases taking years to install critical updates) and carried on using Windows XP machines after Microsoft withdrew support.

The DHS has plowed millions into creating a nationwide security scanning system called EINSTEIN, which is on its third software generation. Coburn said the system hunts for simple malware signatures – so good luck catching customized software nasties, zero-days, and polymorphic, encrypted code.

Within government networks, the DHS is supposed to have a Continuous Diagnostics & Mitigation (CDM) system to check for weak passwords and known vulnerabilities, but this too isn’t really working, Coburn said, despite $168m in funding. The CDM system hasn't yet been extended to all government offices and Coburn reported that there were serious doubts that it ever would.

He also lays into US Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), saying that the organization is slow to issue alerts for security threats, lagging well behind commercial companies.

There are some bright spots. Coburn acknowledges that there have been more than 2,000 arrests for cybercrime in the past year. But the investigations team is woefully understaffed, with only 260 full-time investigators.

Overall, the senator's report is pretty damning for an organization that sucks up a lot of government cash. Nevertheless, considering Coburn has been head of the congressional oversight body, maybe he should have done a better job himself. ®

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