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Shutdown could test IT security at U.S. federal agencies

Jaikumar Vijayan | Oct. 2, 2013
Agencies would have skeletal IT teams in place to manage systems

A government shutdown that lasts more than a few days could test the ability of federal agencies to protect their information systems against security threats.

Several agencies, over the past few days, have released contingency plans showing that they will have to heavily scale down their IT teams to maintain, manage and protect IT infrastructure during a shutdown.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs , for instance, said it will furlough more than 40%, or 3,267, of its 8,026 IT employees in the event of an appropriations lapse. Those remaining will be responsible for functions such as network maintenance and protection, information security and for keeping the data center and enterprise infrastructure running.

In some cases, the shutdown will leave barely a skeletal staff in place to run legally "excepted" activities.

The Federal Trade Commission exempted a total of six employees from taking a forced furlough. The six will be responsible for ensuring the integrity and availability of the agency's IT infrastructure to other exempt employees at the agency. The six individuals will also be responsible for other tasks, including direct support of the agency's network and telecommunication services, operating the FTC's data center, rotating backup media for offsite store and provide on-site database administration support, the FTC said in its contingency plans.

The Social Security Administration exempted 10%, or 310 of its 3,187 IT employees, for infrastructure and program support purposes. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development asked all but 349 of its 8,709 administrative and management staff to go on furlough. Among those exempted from the furlough are 13 IT employees out of 244 in the agency CIO's office. The 13 will be responsible for keeping critical systems running and protecting them against security threats.

Most other federal agencies are expected to have a similar handful of IT security staff and other essential personnel to run infrastructure operations.

"I believe that most CIOs will have their security and network analysts deemed 'essential,' and they will be on a heightened [state] of awareness," said Karen Evans, former de facto federal CIO during the George W. Bush administration.

Many IT services will need to be available through a shutdown so most IT staff will also be deemed essential, she noted. "But, the short of it is, because of all the services online and how government accesses these services, there are going to be risks," associated with a prolonged shutdown, she said.

Eugene Spafford, executive director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security at Purdue University said the contingency plans that federal agencies have set up should be adequate for a few days but not for a long stretch.


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