March 17, 2012
GAO: IRS Continues to Put Taxpayer Information at Risk; 89 of 105 Internal Control Weaknesses Remain
The Government Accountability Office yesterday released IRS Needs to Further Enhance Internal Control Over Financial Reporting and Taxpayer Data (GAO-12-393):
IRS implemented numerous controls and procedures intended to protect key financial and tax-processing systems; nevertheless, control weaknesses in these systems continue to jeopardize the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of the financial and sensitive taxpayer information processed by IRS’s systems. Specifically, the agency continues to face challenges in controlling access to its information resources. For example, it had not always (1) implemented controls for identifying and authenticating users, such as requiring users to set new passwords after a prescribed period of time; (2) appropriately restricted access to certain servers; (3) ensured that sensitive data were encrypted when transmitted; (4) audited and monitored systems to ensure that unauthorized activities would be detected; or (5) ensured management validation of access to restricted areas. In addition, unpatched and outdated software exposed IRS to known vulnerabilities, and the agency had not enforced backup procedures for a key system.
An underlying reason for these weaknesses is that IRS has not fully implemented a comprehensive information security program. IRS has established a comprehensive framework for such a program, and has made strides to address control deficiencies—such as establishing working groups to identify and remediate specific at-risk control areas; however, it has not fully implemented all key components of its program. For example, IRS’s security testing and monitoring continued to not detect many of the vulnerabilities GAO identified during this audit. IRS also did not promptly correct known vulnerabilities. For example, the agency indicated that 76 of the 105 previously reported weaknesses open at the end of GAO’s prior year audit had not yet been corrected. In addition, IRS did not always validate that its actions to resolve known weaknesses were effectively implemented. Although IRS had a process in place for verifying whether each weakness had been corrected, this process was not always working as intended. Of the 29 weaknesses IRS indicated were corrected, GAO determined that 13 (about 45 percent) had not yet been fully addressed.
Considered collectively, these deficiencies, both new and unresolved from previous GAO audits, along with a lack of fully effective compensating and mitigating controls, impair IRS's ability to ensure that its financial and taxpayer information is secure from internal threats. This reduces IRS's assurance that its financial statements and other financial information are fairly presented or reliable and that sensitive IRS and taxpayer information is being sufficiently safeguarded from unauthorized disclosure or modification. These deficiencies are the basis of GAO’s determination that IRS had a material weakness in internal control over financial reporting related to information security in fiscal year 2011.
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