Watching Out for Federal Cybersecurity

thumbnail_information_securityThe federal government relies on computer networks and systems to provide essential services affecting the health, economy, and defense of the nation. Incidents of hacking or cyber attacks place sensitive information at risk, with potentially serious effects on federal and military operations; critical infrastructure; and government, private sector, and individual privacy. The Department of Homeland Security has designated October as National Cybersecurity Awareness Month. To mark the month, we are highlighting some of our findings on federal cybersecurity efforts.

Cyber Incidents are Increasing

We found that federal agencies reported 782 percent more cybersecurity incidents to the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team in 2012 than in 2006. The dramatic rise in the number of incidents can be seen in the graphic below.

chart1 Excerpted from GAO-13-187

Cybersecurity Gaps Put Information at Risk

Increasing numbers of cyber incidents and challenges in effectively implementing cybersecurity measures have led us to put the protection of federal information systems on our High Risk list. In the latest update, we noted that most of the 24 major federal agencies had information security weaknesses in key control categories, including:

  • limiting, preventing, and detecting inappropriate access to computer resources;
  • planning for continuity of operations in the event of a disaster or disruption; and
  • implementing information security management programs.


Excerpted from GAO-13-283

Other gaps in cybersecurity that we have identified include:

Agency Responses to Cyber Incidents

In cases involving personally identifiable information, and generally, we found that agencies are not responding to cyber incidents consistently or effectively. Some response strategies we recommended include:

  • Documenting risk levels and the number of affected individuals for data breaches;
  • Offering credit monitoring to affected individuals;
  • Documenting lessons learned from breach responses;
  • Testing incident response capabilities; and
  • Developing or clarifying policies, plans, and procedures for incident response.

We found that without complete policies, plans, and procedures, along with appropriate oversight of response activities, agencies can’t be certain that their responses will be effective.

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Podcast on Food Safety and Reducing Pathogens in Poultry

GAO Podcast IconThe U.S. food supply is one of the safest in the world, yet the CDC estimates that pathogens like salmonella in contaminated food, especially poultry, cause more than 2 million human illnesses per year.

Hear our podcast with Alfredo Gomez, a director in GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment team, who led a recent review of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s approach to reducing pathogens in poultry products.

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Flu Season Is Here!

Thumbnail Health CareIt’s the start of fall, the leaves are starting to change color, and the days are getting shorter. But fall also means the return of seasonal influenza—it’s flu season. Getting the flu vaccine is one of the best ways you can protect yourself against the flu. Earlier is better so you and others are protected before the season begins. However, getting vaccinated even in December or later still helps, because flu season lasts into early spring. Check out some of our findings on public health issues related to flu season.

Flu Vaccine: Supply vs. Demand

We’ve reported on the challenges of matching the supply of flu vaccine with the public’s demand, especially given how the length and severity of the flu season can vary. For example, the 2011-2012 flu season started later than it typically does, peaked in March 2012, and was mild compared to previous seasons—leaving manufacturers with excess flu vaccines. But the following flu season was early and intense, with reports of vaccine shortages. This figure from February 2013 illustrates these variations between flu seasons by looking at the percentage of outpatient visits for flu-like illnesses.


Excerpted from GAO-13-374T

Looking at the number of doses of flu vaccine distributed for those flu seasons can also show variations in supply.


Excerpted from GAO-13-374T

Preparing for Seasonal Flu on the Federal Level

Over the last decade, the Department of Health and Human Services has made progress in preparing for seasonal flu by, for example,

  • clearer communication with the public about when and where to get the flu vaccine, and
  • investments to enhance overall supply of flu vaccine.

Yet, for each flu season, as we reported,

  • private sector manufacturers have to decide how much vaccine to produce,
  • providers must decide how much to order, and
  • everyone must decide whether, when, and where to get vaccinated.

These challenges—along with the challenges inherent in vaccine production, and the unpredictability of flu seasons—can make it difficult to successfully make the flu vaccine available when and where it is needed.

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Marcia Crosse at
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact
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Addressing Global Hunger

thumbnail international affairsIn 1979, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) designated October 16th as World Food Day to bring attention to the crisis of global hunger. According to FAO, there are more than 800 million people around the world who are chronically malnourished. The United States is the largest donor of international food assistance, spending about $2 billion per year to provide food assistance to countries where people are facing food shortages and malnutrition. In addition, the United States tries to help with emergency food aid to address humanitarian crises, such as the current crisis in Syria, and with programs that support agricultural development. We have reviewed several of these U.S. programs to address global hunger. Here are some of our key findings:

Feed the Future led to coordination efforts for fragmented programs: As recently as 2010, U.S. global food security programs were fragmented across several agencies and not well coordinated. Since then, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has spearheaded the Feed the Future initiative to increase agricultural productivity and reduce malnutrition among kids in 19 countries with chronic food insecurity. To that end, USAID has taken a whole-of-government approach and made progress in coordinating the various U.S. global food security programs.


Excerpted from GAO-13-809

Positioning emergency food aid in warehouses improved delivery times: Sudden disasters or persistent yearly droughts can necessitate shipments of emergency food. To help ensure that these food shipments get to needy people in a timely fashion, USAID has been storing some food in domestic and overseas warehouses before emergencies happen. Our analysis showed that USAID has indeed reduced the average time it takes to deliver emergency food aid, as illustrated in the figure. However, USAID doesn’t collect and analyze data needed to monitor delivery times, which could allow it to improve its delivery times even more. Hear our podcast for more on this report.


Excerpted from GAO-14-277

Funding food-related development projects by monetizing U.S. food commodities is inefficient: The United States has a long-standing practice of funding development projects meant to help people facing food insecurity by monetizing U.S. food commodities—purchasing, shipping, and selling them in developing countries. However, we found that this practice is inefficient and can actually hurt the domestic agricultural markets in developing countries that are already challenged in meeting the food needs of their people. As shown in the figure, the United States spent $219 million over a 3-year period to cover the costs associated with purchasing, shipping, and selling U.S. food commodities, rather than spending the funds directly on development projects.


Excerpted from GAO-11-636

Buying food close to where hungry people live has advantages over buying food in the United States and shipping it overseas: It can be much more cost effective and allow for more timely assistance, as shown in the figure. This practice can also have the added benefit of supporting the local or regional agricultural sector, rather than undercutting it with imported food.


Excerpted from GAO-09-570

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Controlling Costs for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

thumbnail_defenseFrom acquisition to operations and maintenance, Department of Defense weapons programs are consistently of interest to the federal government and the public. Since 2000, we have been assessing DOD’s most costly weapons program, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The defense acquisition best practices we have developed have helped us recommend ways to control costs for such an ambitious program.

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October is National Dental Hygiene Month

Thumbnail Health CareAs autumn brings the chocolates, lollipops, and other sweets that come with Halloween, this is an excellent time to remember your teeth! October is National Dental Hygiene Month, which highlights the importance of keeping your mouth, teeth, and gums clean and healthy to prevent tooth decay and disease. We have issued several reports related to dental health and children’s access to dental services.

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GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice Team

thumbnail_homeland_securityGAO’s workforce is organized largely by subject area, with most employees working in 1 of 14 mission teams, many of which we have highlighted on the WatchBlog. Today we’ll be putting the spotlight on the Homeland Security & Justice (HSJ) team, which works on issues such as border security and immigration, emergency preparedness and response, and justice and law enforcement.

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The Future of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship

thumbnail_defenseSince 2004, the Navy has been working on acquiring a new class of ship intended to provide surface combat capabilities near the shore (the littoral zone). The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) was intended to have lower acquisition costs and to use innovative manning, training, and maintenance concepts. These concepts would minimize crew size and reduce operating costs over the long term. While previous surface combat ships had specialized equipment built into them for different missions, the LCS was designed to be reconfigurable for 3 different types of missions. As this new ship program continues to produce ships, we have been reporting on concerns and risks related to the Navy’s purchase and deployment of the LCS.

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United States Partners with African Countries to Counter Terrorist Threats

thumbnail international affairsFrom the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, to recent al Qaeda and Boko Haram attacks in Northwest Africa, events have suggested that both regions are vulnerable to terrorism and violent extremism. The United States provides training and equipment to military and law enforcement agencies in partner countries, and works with local populations at risk of becoming involved in violent radicalization. We issued two reports this year on U.S. regional programs in East Africa and Northwest Africa. These programs are helping improve the ability of African countries to counter terrorist groups, but both need stronger program management from the State Department to meet their goals and protect taxpayer dollars.

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Identity Theft Tax Refund Fraud

taxes thumbnailBack in January, for Tax Identity Theft Awareness Week, we identified the two major types of tax-related identity fraud: refund fraud, and employment fraud. Earlier this week, we released a new report on identity theft tax refund fraud. In the report, we examined IRS’s estimates about the extent of the problem and the need for information on the costs and benefits of options for combating it.

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