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OIG: Census Bureau’s Mishandling of a January 2020 Cybersecurity Incident Demonstrated Opportunities for Improvement

Beginning on January 11, 2020, servers operated by the U.S. Census Bureau (the Bureau) were attacked using a publicly available exploit.

Beginning on January 11, 2020, servers operated by the U.S. Census Bureau (the Bureau) were attacked using a publicly available exploit. The purpose of these servers was to provide the Bureau with remote-access capabilities for its enterprise staff to access the production, development, and lab networks. According to system personnel, these servers did not provide access to 2020 decennial census networks. The exploit was partially successful, in that the attacker modified user account data on the systems to prepare for remote code execution. However, the attacker’s attempts to maintain access to the system by creating a backdoor into the affected servers were unsuccessful.

The Enterprise Security Operations Center (ESOC) is the U.S. Department of Commerce’s (the Department’s) primary point of contact for reporting computer security incidents within the Department and to external stakeholders. During this incident, ESOC was responsible for facilitating information sharing between the Bureau and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). Additionally, the Bureau’s Computer Incident Response Team was responsible for responding to the incident.

The Commerce Department Office of Inspector General conducted an audit to assess the adequacy of the Bureau’s process to respond to cybersecurity incidents according to federal and Departmental requirements.

OIG found that the Bureau should make improvements to its cyber incident response process. Specifically, the Bureau missed opportunities to mitigate a critical vulnerability, which resulted in the exploitation of vital servers. Once the servers had been exploited, the Bureau did not discover and report the incident in a timely manner. Additionally, the Bureau did not maintain sufficient system logs, which hindered the incident investigation. Following the incident, the Bureau did not conduct a lessons-learned session to identify improvement opportunities. OIG also found that the Bureau was operating servers that were no longer supported by the vendor.

OIG recommended that the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau ensures that the Bureau’s Chief Information Officer implements procedures to promptly notify relevant system personnel when critical vulnerabilities are publicly released, frequently reviews and updates vulnerability scanning lists to ensure all network addressable information technology (IT) assets are identified for vulnerability scanning, ensures all network-addressable IT assets are scanned using credentials when feasible according to Bureau-determined frequencies, reviews the automated alert capabilities of the Bureau’s security information and event management tool to ensure a similar attack can be identified in the future, and ensures Bureau incident responders comply with Departmental and Bureau requirements to report confirmed computer security incidents to ESOC within 1 hour.

OIG recommended that the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Commerce ensures that the Department’s Chief Information Officer develops ESOC procedures for the handling of alerts from outside entities (e.g., DHS CISA) to ensure information is conveyed to Department operating units in a timely manner.

OIG recommended that the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau ensures that the Bureau’s Chief Information Officer incorporates periodic reviews of the Bureau’s system log aggregation configurations to ensure all network-addressable IT assets are correctly configured, updates Bureau incident response policies to include a specific timeframe prescribing when to conduct a review of lessons learned, and establishes plans with milestones to prioritize the decommissioning of end-of-life products.

Read the OIG report

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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