WikiLeaks fiasco prompts new Fed effort to boost data security

OMB calls on agencies to improve employee monitoring programs to better ferret out untrustworthy, despondent workers

Prompted by fallout from the WikiLeaks debacle, the White House Office of Management and Budget has asked all federal agencies and departments handling classified data to shore up efforts to identify untrustworthy and discontented employees.

A 14-page memo signed by OMB director Jacob Lew was sent to agency heads earlier this week. The contents of the memo were leaked to NBC News, which posted it online .

The memo - the second sent by the OMB since the latest WikiLeaks brouhaha started last fall - lists dozens of questions that are designed to help government agencies to assess their readiness to deal with insider threats and a broad range of other information security issues.

For instance, the Lew asks in the memo whether agencies are using psychiatrists and sociologists to measure the "relative happiness" and the "despondence and grumpiness" of employees.

The memo also asks agency officials to determine whether adequate processes or systems is in place for identifying "unusually high occurrences of foreign travel, contacts, or foreign preference" among employees, and if departments have the means to determine pre- and post-employment participation in on-line forums such as WikiLeaks and OpenLeaks.

The questions were drafted for the OMB by officials in the Information Security Oversight Office and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The first OMB memo , issued after WikiLeaks began releasing thousands of classified cables from the U.S. Department of State last November, ordered federal agencies and departments handling classified data to conduct comprehensive security reviews using special security assessment teams and counterintelligence experts.

Agencies have until Jan. 28 to complete the internal assessments called for in the first memo, and to respond to the questions on the latest missive.

John Pescatore, an analyst with Gartner, said that while some of the questions in the latest OMB memo might appear somewhat delicate, they are important to examine.

"In private industry, most HR organizations realize that 'engaged employees' are the most productive," Pescatore said. "Engaged basically means happy, part of a team, feeling productive, feeling valued. If you notice, most people arrested for espionage or insider fraud are the exact opposite of that."

In general, keeping a closely monitoring employees to ferret out risky behavior is an effective way to mitigate insider threats, Pescatore said. However, he did note that officials must have a plan in place to deal with problem employees to avoid possible legal problems.

"You can't fire people for being grumpy or non-engaged," he said. Agencies could be "accused of 'profiling' or get hit with discriminatory workplace [complaints]. You either have to remove their access to sensitive information, or monitor them more closely."

Therefore, government agencies should focus more on better protecting classified and other important information, he said. "This is where the big deficiencies are in government."

The latest memo also asks agency officials to submit detailed information on access control mechanisms and the processes in place for monitoring and auditing data access. The officials were also asked to describe counter-intelligence activities that have been implemented and what measures have been taken to identify and protect information that is of "priority interest to adversary collectors."

The memo also seeks information the information security education and training programs employed by agencies and their enforcement of Acceptable Use and Rules of Behavior agreements.

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Jaikumar Vijayan

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