Your Internet Privacy

Photo of Computer CodeDo you shop or bank online? Use the Internet to stay connected with friends and family? Internet-based products and services regularly collect and share personal information about users, such as location, search terms and browsing history, contact information, and financial data.

We’ve looked at how federal agencies oversee Internet privacy and potential ways to better protect consumers—today’s WatchBlog explores.

Concern with every click

Recent incidents have raised public concern about the misuse of consumers’ personal information from the Internet. In 2018, FTC found in an investigation that PayPal had misled consumers about privacy of financial transactions and in 2017 FTC determined that Vizio, a company that makes Smart TVs, tracked consumers’ television viewing without consumers’ knowledge or consent. Incidents like these may make Americans wary of using some Internet services. According to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 24 percent of American households surveyed in 2017 avoided making financial transactions on the Internet due to privacy or security concerns.

Who protects your data?

The United States, unlike the European Union, does not have a comprehensive Internet privacy law. The Federal Trade Commission, which protects consumers from unfair and deceptive trade practices, leads efforts to oversee Internet privacy. However, we found that FTC has not issued regulations for Internet privacy other than ones protecting the privacy of children. FTC staff said its rulemaking procedures, which differ from what most agencies traditionally use, add time and complexity to the process. In the last decade, FTC filed 101 enforcement actions related to Internet privacy against companies but did not have the authority to impose fines for most violations.

Figure Showing Timeline of FCC's and FTC's Internet Privacy Oversight

Improving consumer protection

Most industry stakeholders we interviewed said they favored FTC’s current approach to Internet privacy because it allowed for flexibility and innovation. But others—including consumer advocates and most former FTC commissioners—thought more could be done to protect consumers’ privacy online. They identified three areas in which federal oversight could be enhanced:

  • An overarching Internet privacy law could enhance consumer protection by clearly articulating what behaviors are prohibited.
  • Regulations regarding Internet privacy could provide clarity, enforcement fairness, and flexibility.
  • FTC’s Internet privacy enforcement could be more effective if it had additional authority to impose fines for violations.

We recommended that Congress consider developing comprehensive legislation on Internet privacy that would enhance consumer protections and provide flexibility to address a rapidly evolving Internet environment.

Listen to our podcast with directors Alicia Puente Cackley and Mark Goldstein to hear more about the government’s role in securing personal information online:

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Interested in learning more? Check out our other reports on Internet privacy:

  • Internet of things: As more devices become connected, there are increased opportunities for privacy breaches.
  • Vehicle data privacy: Most selected automakers reported limiting their data collection, use, and sharing, but their written notices did not clearly identify data sharing and use practices.
  • Information resellers: No overarching federal privacy law governs the collection and sale of personal information among private-sector companies, including resellers. We recommended that Congress consider strengthening the consumer privacy framework; such legislation has not been enacted.
  • Mobile device location data: According to privacy advocates, consumers are generally unaware of how their location data are shared with and used by third parties.

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Love is in the Air: A GAO Mixtape, Part 2

Animation Saying, "Happy Valentine's Day"Today, we celebrate our love for you – and our work. Maybe you noticed this with our first Valentine’s Day mixtape last year? We Crush on providing you with objective, reliable information that helps the government save money and work better, Always and Forever. It’s just our way of showing you The Greatest Love of All: the love of accountability.

We Can’t Help Falling in Love with doing this work, so we made another Valentine’s Day mixtape to bring some more data Close to You. Press play and feel the romance of program auditing.

Love, like accessing high school courses to help prep for college, should be easy as A-B-C. But it turns out that students in smaller and poorer schools had less access to “the branches on the learning tree” including more advanced courses like calculus, physics, and courses that offer college credits to high school students. Officials we interviewed in high-poverty schools said their students can face numerous challenges in preparing for college. Some school officials we interviewed were taking steps to address these challenges, like offering free college courses.

Figure Showing Courses Offered in Public High Schools, by School Poverty Level

Why do so many artists—from the Beatles to Jody Watley, from the Doobie Brothers to Mary J. Blige—sing about finding Real Love? Probably because we all share a desire for authenticity. Speaking of finding the genuine article: we found that counterfeit products can be hard to spot and may be offered online next to authentic goods. For example, manufacturers determined 20 of 47 items GAO purchased from third-party sellers on popular sites were counterfeit. We recommended that Customs and Border Protection improve evaluations of its efforts to stop imported counterfeit goods at the border and assess opportunities to enhance information sharing about seized goods with the private sector.

Images Showing Examples of Counterfeit Products Purchased Online

Lou Reed sang that his Satellite of Love had gone to Mars and was filled with “parkin’ cars”. While we haven’t studied autos in space, we do know that the Department of Defense spends billions of dollars a year on satellites that provide critical communications, reconnaissance, and other capabilities. We found that DOD may be able to save money and add capabilities faster by paying private companies to host government sensors or other equipment—called payloads—on their satellites. DOD estimates it has already saved hundreds of millions of dollars from this cost-sharing approach. We recommended that DOD gather data in a central location from its programs that use these commercially hosted payloads.

Illustration Showing Satellites Owned by DOD, Other Agencies, Foreign Countries, and Private Companies

Looking For Love in all the wrong places? Or just Searchin’ for something in common with your crush? Like you, the National Nuclear Security Agency is trying to find certain things In Common among its contractors. NNSA started implementing a common financial reporting system for its contractors so it can better compare and manage contract costs. However, we found that this effort has not followed leading project management practices and made seven recommendations to address problems we found.

Valentine's Day Card for First RespondersValentine’s Day isn’t just for saying I’ll Be There For You to our significant others. It’s also the perfect occasion to tell our police officer and firefighter friends how much we heart them for being there for us every day, not just on February 14th.

But in what ways can the federal government be there for them? In our report, we talked about how vital communications are in emergencies and recommended that Homeland Security’s Office of Emergency Communications (now known as the Emergency Communications Division) make certain it can communicate quality information to all public-safety stakeholders, including our first responders.

Maybe someone’s Been Caught Stealing your heart with Just One Look. With Tax Day coming, we hope no fraudsters try to steal your ID, too. While the IRS kept $10.5 billion out of the hands of criminals using false identities to claim tax refunds in 2016, at least $1.6 billion was paid out to fraudsters. Among our 11 recommendations to IRS: prioritize its authentication initiatives; estimate the funding and other resources it will need to implement these initiatives; and develop a process to evaluate potential authentication technologies.

Illustration Showing Cybercrimes

Foo Fighter Dave Grohl looked to the sky to save him when he wanted to Learn To Fly; but if you’re a pilot wanting to train in one of the Air Force’s 186 F-22s, you need a bit more than that. The small-but-mighty F-22 fleet is central to the Air Force’s ability to defeat increasingly capable and technologically advanced adversaries. However, we found that F-22 pilots have limited opportunities to train for air superiority missions in high threat environments (i.e., the ability to freely maneuver and take decisive action in highly contested spaces). We recommended that the Air Force identify ways to increase these opportunities so F-22 pilots can enhance their skills.

Photo of an Air Force F-22

You’ve reached the last track on the mixtape. You can hit rewind or visit gao.gov to read more reports.


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The Life and Times of Elmer B. Staats, Our 5th Comptroller General

Elmer B StaatsElmer B Staats became the 5th Comptroller General of the United States in 1966 but his influence still looms large today.

Today’s Watchblog explores Staats’ role in transforming GAO’s role beyond just financial auditing.

The early years

Elmer B Staats was born on June 6, 1914, in Richfield, Kansas. He excelled in academics in his early years and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from McPherson University. He later received a master’s degree at the University of Kansas, and then a doctorate in economics and government at the University of Minnesota.

Staats’ early government career was with the Bureau of Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget), where he managed and coordinated the U.S.’s civilian war agencies. After Joseph Campbell retired in 1965, Staats left BOB to take up the position of Comptroller General.

A pragmatic agent of good government

Elmer B StaatsAs Comptroller General, Staats worked to effectively serve Congress. He transformed GAO from an organization that only conducts financial audits to one that also evaluates the effectiveness of government programs. To illustrate this change, accountants made up almost all of our professional staff when he was first appointed. However, during his tenure, we began recruiting scientists, computer professionals, and public policy experts to help fulfill our expanded mission.

Staats also issued the first edition of the Standards for Audit of Governmental Organizations, Programs, Activities, and Functions, now known as the “Yellow Book.” He served as the first chairman of the Cost Accounting Standards Board, and was a member of a number of presidential and governmental advisory bodies.

Reflecting on Staats’ tenure, a senior GAO manager referred to him as “a pragmatic agent of good government,” who viewed our reports as “a way to achieve results rather than simply hitting someone over the head.”

Service after GAO

Staats completed his 15-year term as Comptroller General in 1981, serving through the administrations of Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter.

In the years following his retirement, Staats continued to be active in government service. He became a member of the Governmental Accounting Standards Board and the first chairman of the Federal Accounting Standards Board. Elmer B. Staats died in 2011 at the age of 97.

[Content for this blog post comes from: Defender of the Public Interest: The General Accounting Office, 1921-1966 by Roger R. Trask, published by the U.S. General Accounting Office (1996); Reporting the Facts, 1981-1996 by Maarja Krusten, published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (2018); and Oral History Series: Elmer B. Staats, published by the U.S. General Accounting Office (1987).]


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Title IX and High School Sports: Facts and Findings 

Photo of a Locker RoomDid you know that Title IX applies to high school sports, as well as college sports?

Title IX’s complexities make it a program that is not very well understood. So, in honor of National Girls and Women in Sports Day (February 6), today’s WatchBlog answers some common questions about Title IX in the context of high school sports and looks at some of our recent work on this topic.

Q: What is Title IX, anyway?

A: Passed in 1972, Title IX is a law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education programs or activities that receive federal funds—including those at public high schools.

Q: Does Title IX require schools to have equal numbers of sports teams for girls and boys?

A: Not exactly. Title IX regulations require schools to offer equal participation opportunities for girls and boys. This does not necessarily mean the same number of teams, since team sizes can vary. One way a school can demonstrate equal participation opportunities is to think about participation in the context of enrollment—that is, if half of a school’s students are girls, then girls would also make up about half of sports participants.

Q: So, how are schools doing by that measure?

A: We looked at the Department of Education’s (Education) data for school year 2013-14 (the most recent available when we did this work), and found that girls made up 49% of students at public high schools that offer sports and 43% of sports participants at those schools.

Q: I’ve also heard that Title IX requires schools to spend the same amount on girls’ and boys’ teams. Is that true?

A: It’s complicated. Title IX requires equal treatment—in terms of things ranging from equipment and uniforms to coaching and travel opportunitiesacross all girls’ and boys’ teams, not necessarily spending.

Q: OK, but what about athletic booster club spending?

A: Booster club spending counts, too. Schools can’t accept funds or other contributions that create disparities between girls and boys.

Q: What are public high schools doing to ensure equal treatment?

A: We surveyed public high school athletics administrators and most of them said that, in the last 2 years, their school assessed some aspect of their treatment of girls’ and boys’ teams to encourage equity (most commonly, uniforms and facilities). Additionally, about 40% of schools surveyed students’ interests in different sports—for example, to see if they could add a sport in which girls were more interested. About 25% made changes based on requests from the sex with lower participation.

Figure Showing Estimated Percent of Public High Schools That Assessed Resources and Spending for Boys' and Girls' Teams

Q: Were schools that didn’t take steps to provide equal opportunities noncompliant with Title IX?

A: Not necessarily. When Education investigates Title IX complaints, it considers many elements of equal opportunity as well as the specific circumstances of the school.

Q: Who can help make sure schools are meeting Title IX requirements?

A: Education requires all public school districts to have a Title IX coordinator and says in its guidance that this person should work closely with (among others) the athletics administrators. But about 51% of athletics administrators said they were either unaware of, or unsupported by, their Title IX coordinator. Since Education has already put out guidance to Title IX coordinators, we recommended that it examine coordinators’ awareness and use of the guidance, and use that information to strengthen future work encouraging coordinators to work with athletics administrators.

To find out more about our work on Title IX and high school sports, check out GAO-17-754R and GAO-18-425.


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IRS in Need of Better Controls to Safeguard Taxpayer Data

photo of the IRS building signEvery tax season, you send information to the IRS about your salary, marriage status, and other personal and financial information.

We’ve looked at whether IRS has effective controls in place to protect the sensitive financial and taxpayer data in its computer systems. Today’s WatchBlog explores.

IRS shows some improvement in controls

IRS relies extensively on computer systems to collect taxes, process tax returns, and enforce the nation’s tax laws.

Since fiscal year 2012, we have reported on IRS’s lack of significant internal controls over its own financial reporting systems. We found that IRS made progress in addressing some of the internal control problems we identified, such as restricting unnecessary user access to certain applications and enforcing the use of encryption. The agency also corrected a previously identified contingency planning weakness for one system.

But problems continue to challenge IRS

Despite making improvements, IRS continues to face challenges in correcting previous and ongoing information security control problems in its financial systems that contain taxpayer data. IRS had the most weaknesses in preventing unauthorized access to its systems and proper configuration management (i.e., security features for information systems). For example, IRS has not

  • consistently enforced password expirations or minimum password lengths,
  • installed critical security patches to databases supporting 5 information systems, and
  • replaced outdated software that the vendor no longer supports.

Our recommendations

By the end of fiscal year 2017, IRS had not fully implemented 117 prior GAO recommendations, and we made 37 new recommendations to address information security control problems for a total of 154 outstanding recommendations.

To learn more, read our full report.


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Our New Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics Team

Today we launched a new Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team, expanding our work on cutting-edge science and technology issues.

STAA will focus on:

  1. Technology assessments and technical services for the Congress,
  1. Auditing federal science and technology programs,
  1. Compiling and utilizing best practices in the engineering sciences, including cost, schedule, and technology readiness assessment, and
  1. Establishing an audit innovation lab to explore, pilot, and deploy new advanced analytic capabilities, information assurance auditing, and emerging technologies that are expected to greatly impact auditing practices.

Watch our video, featuring U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro and STAA’s Managing Directors Tim Persons (GAO’s Chief Scientist) and John Neumann, to learn about how this team will enhance our ability to help Congress oversee federal science and technology programs.

Enhancing and expanding our work

GAO routinely provides analysis of how federal agencies manage and employ science and technology, such as regenerative medicine, 5G wireless communication, and quantum computing.

In addition to our more traditional audit work, we’ve also conducted technology assessments for nearly two decades. These forward-looking analyses examine the potential benefits and challenges of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence.

STAA will combine and enhance our technology assessment functions and our science and technology evaluation into a single, more prominent office to better meet Congress’ growing need for information on these important issues. We plan to fill the team’s roster with both experienced staff and new hires, so look out for future job postings.

Visit our site to learn more about STAA.


 

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Risks and Benefits of Fintech Lending

Photo of two people exchanging $100 billsFinancial technology (fintech) refers to the use of technology and innovation to provide financial products and services—and fintech lending is a growing part of this field.

Fintech lenders are nonbank firms that operate online and may use “alternative data,” including rental property or utility payments, to help determine borrowers’ creditworthiness. Although using alternative data may make loans available to more people, there are risks as well as benefits to this use.

Today’s WatchBlog explores our recent fintech report examining fintech lenders’ use of alternative data and how federal agencies monitor lenders’ use of this data.

Alternative data 101

Alternative data is generally defined as information not traditionally used by the national consumer reporting agencies in calculating a credit score. Some alternative data (such as on-time rent payments) are financial and similar to traditional data, while others are nonfinancial (such as a borrower’s educational institution and degree). Some fintech lenders use alternative data to supplement traditional data used to make credit decisions or to detect potential fraud.

Infographic Showing Examples of Traditional and Alternative Data Used by Fintech Lenders

What are the potential risks and benefits of using alternative data?

The potential risks of using alternative data include:

  • Some types of alternative data, such as online social network information about living in disadvantaged areas, may be associated with characteristics protected by fair lending laws (e.g., laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race or national origin). Consequently, using alternative data in credit decisions raises concerns that borrowers who are part of these protected classes may be adversely affected.
  • Concerns also exist that there may be a lack of transparency about what alternative data is being used and how it is employed in the credit decision. The borrower may also be unable to dispute the information used.
  • Recent cybersecurity breaches show there is a potential for security risks. This may become a growing concern as lenders expand beyond using traditional borrower data.

Although there may be potential risks with using alternative data, there may also be potential benefits. For example:

  • Fintech lenders could offer loans to borrowers whose traditional credit history may have been insufficient to extend them credit.
  • Fintech lenders may be able to reach credit decisions more quickly than traditional banks and improve borrowers’ convenience.
  • Fintech lenders can use alternative data to verify borrowers’ identities, which helps prevent fraud.

How can federal regulators help lenders better manage the risk?

Fintech lenders said they need more specific information from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and federal banking regulators about the appropriate use of alternative data in making loan decisions. Specifically, additional information would be helpful to clarify steps they should take to ensure compliance with fair lending laws.

We recommended that CFPB, in coordination with the federal banking regulators, communicate in writing to fintech lenders about how to use alternative data.

To learn more, check out our full report.


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The Rigorous Process for Producing “Fact-Based” Information

Photo of Someone Checking Files“We provide Congress with timely information that is objective, fact-based, nonpartisan, nonideological, fair, and balanced.”

So, just what does GAO mean when we say our mission is to provide “fact-based” information?

It means there’s a rigorous fact-checking process that requires close scrutiny of literally every line of every GAO report. It can take some time, but is part of the bedrock of GAO reports.

Today’s WatchBlog focuses on how GAO produces fact-based information.

Every Line Checked

Here’s how the fact-checking usually works.

A GAO team—made up of several analysts, with the help of a methodologist, a lawyer, a communications specialist, and sometimes an economist and a graphic artist—produces a draft of a GAO report. To do this, the team gathers multiple documents, conducts numerous interviews with experts, and may travel to see the audit subject in person or in action—perhaps a ship or an airplane being tested.

The team then takes this mass of information and produces a narrative that answers a particular set of pre-determined questions.

Show Me the Evidence

Team members must produce a link from every sentence in the report to the evidence that supports it. This process is known as “indexing” and used to be done on paper. It required binder after binder of supporting evidence and a draft of the report marked up to show links to the evidence. Today, this is done electronically.

Photo of Indexing and Referencing for a GAO Report

It must then be “referenced.” An analyst who did not work on putting the report together checks each link and evaluates the evidence. The “referencer” must give each sentence a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Is there sufficient, credible evidence to back what’s written? Assessing that is a big part of the job. There are elaborate rules for evidence, too. (GAO spells out the rules for auditing in Government Auditing Standards, also known as the Yellow Book.)

There are additional layers of detailed review as well. Every year, GAO does in-house quality control reviews. Every 3 years, a crew of international auditors rolls in to check GAO’s work. They pull the records to review how well the indexers and referencers have done their jobs, among other things.

Is this a taxing but rewarding process? That’s a fact.

For additional WatchBlog posts about GAO, click here.


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Our 4th Comptroller General, Joseph Campbell—an Auditor, Not a Bowler

Photo of Joseph Campbell, Comptroller General, 1954-1965President Dwight D. Eisenhower nominated Joseph Campbell as the 4th U.S. Comptroller General of the United States more than seven months after Lindsay C. Warren retired.

The nomination came as a surprise to many involved—including Campbell. As part of our latest look back at GAO history, today’s WatchBlog shares Campbell’s legacy.

Life before GAO

Unlike previous Comptrollers General, Joseph Campbell was not an attorney. After serving briefly in the U.S. Army during World War I, he graduated from Columbia University and worked in public accounting at private firms in New York City.

He later returned to Columbia, first working as the Assistant Treasurer and then Vice President of the university. During this time, Campbell became well acquainted with Eisenhower, then president of Columbia.

At the time of his nomination, Campbell was a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, and was considering resigning from it to return to Columbia. When he told Eisenhower about his plans, the President asked him if he would like to become Comptroller General.

Although Eisenhower’s nomination came as a surprise to Campbell—and to many others since he had not been considered a possible candidate—he wholeheartedly accepted the nomination on September 30, 1954.

An independent GAO = No bowling with audited agencies

Campbell, like the first Comptroller General John R. McCarl, felt very strongly about safeguarding GAO’s independence. During his term of more than a decade, Campbell maintained a strict distance from the executive agencies GAO audits and investigates.  

In fact, one senior GAO manager at the time commented that, after Campbell became Comptroller General, “you could not socialize with the agency people. You sure couldn’t socialize with any of their contractors”—which this official learned when his staff joined a bowling league at the Bureau of Public Roads. Campbell heard about the league and confronted the manager, who later recounted the conversation:

“[Campbell] asked me whether I wanted a career as a bowler or an accountant. I told him I wanted to be an accountant. He said “Okay, then get your crew out of that bowling league,” which we immediately did.”

Photo of Joseph Campbell Presenting some DataAdding up the savings for Congress

Campbell also started measuring GAO’s assistance to Congress in terms of quantitative accomplishments—such as reports issued, testimonies given, and money saved. In 1962, he reported that GAO saved nearly $162,875,000, a return of $4 for every $1 invested in the agency. Today, we continue to report on our accomplishments. But now we return about $124 for every dollar invested in us.

At one congressional hearing, the ranking representative from Texas at the time said:

“I don’t know of any agency of the Government that the Congress feels any closer to than the General Accounting Office. Certainly there is good reason for that…Congress feels whenever it wants exact information where the chips will fall where they may, we can always depend upon the reports and investigations and the invaluable help of the General Accounting Office.”

And we continue to provide such insights.

“Tough, Inquisitive, Independent”

Campbell retired from his position in 1965 due to rheumatoid arthritis. Because of his poor health, his departure from GAO was quiet. However, the press praised his time as Comptroller General. The Albuquerque Tribune, described him as “tough, inquisitive, independent.” The Chicago Sun-Times wrote that his retirement was “sad news for the American taxpayer.”

After his retirement, Campbell’s health improved. Eventually, he and his wife settled in Sarasota, Florida where he died at the age of 84 on June 21, 1984.

[Content for this blog post comes from the book, Defender of the Public Interest: The General Accounting Office, 1921-1966 by Roger R. Trask, published by the U.S. General Accounting Office (1996).]


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December Podcast Roundup – Podcasts You May Have Missed

Watchdog Report Podcast LogoWe were busy podcasting all last year! And if you’re not subscribed on iTunes or our RSS feed, you’re missing out. Today’s WatchBlog catches you up on podcasts you may have missed last month.

Protecting the Electric Grid: Severe solar storms could create disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field that lead to extensive power outages. We reported on some of the technologies intended to protect the U.S. electrical grid from such geomagnetic disturbances. Listen to Tim Persons, GAO’s Chief Scientist, discuss these storms and the risk to our electric grid.

Image Showing Space Weather (Coronal Mass Ejection) Can Cause Geomagnetic Disturbances on Earth

TSA’s Pipeline Security Program: The U.S. interstate pipeline system delivers oil, natural gas, and other hazardous products throughout the nation. These pipelines are vulnerable to accidents, operating errors, and malicious physical and cyber attacks. Listen to Chris Currie, a director in our Homeland Security and Justice team, discuss the weaknesses we found in how TSA manages its pipeline security efforts.

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Photo of GAO's Homeland Justice and Security Director, Chris Currie, in the Podcast Studio

Information Systems Security and Intrusion Protection: How is the government doing at protecting against cyberattacks? We found that federal agencies have gotten better at preventing and detecting intrusions into their information systems, but they still remain vulnerable to attacks. Listen to Greg Wilshusen, a director in our Information Technology team, discuss the need for agencies to improve implementation of government-wide practices for securing their information systems.

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Photo of Someone Working on a Computer

2018 Update to GAO’s State and Local Government Fiscal Outlook Model: We recently updated our annual report on the fiscal health of state and local governments. Our outlook suggests state and local governments will have an increasingly tough time covering their bills over the next 50 years. Listen to Michelle Sager, a director in our Strategic Issues team, discuss long-term fiscal trends and challenges these sectors may face.

Simulation Table Showing State and Local Government Sector Operating Balance as a Percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), 2008 through 2067


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