OMB sets 120-day deadline for Fed breach-notification plans

Agencies have the summer to develop and implement first phases of policies

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is giving federal agencies 120 days to develop and implement a security breach notification policy. Agencies have also been instructed in that time to review their use of personally identifiable information (PII), and to develop plans to reduce or eliminate the unnecessary use of Social Security numbers and other personal data.

The deadlines were set forth in a memorandum sent to the heads of executive departments and agencies last week by Clay Johnson, the OMB’s deputy director for management. In the memo, Johnson also outlined several other data loss mitigation measures that he wanted agencies to implement. The measures included designing strategies for protecting data during remote access, assigning roles and responsibilities for individuals with access to personal data, and implementing policies for corrective actions for failures to follow security guidelines.

The measures are needed to better protect against and respond to security breaches involving private data, Johnson said in his 22-page memo (PDF format). "Safeguarding personally identifiable information in the possession of the government and preventing its breach are essential to ensure the government retains the trust of the American public," he wrote.

The memo directs the agencies to use "a best judgment standard" in developing a breach notification policy and urges them to ensure the "widest possible" distribution of the standards across each agency.

It reiterates several of the existing privacy and security measures that agencies are obligated to fulfill, such as prioritizing their information systems, doing privacy impact analysis and performing continuous monitoring of sensitive systems. In addition to these requirements, Johnson’s memo establishes two new privacy controls and discusses five other security measures that federal agencies need to undertake.

As part of the new privacy measures, agencies are now required to review all of the personal data currently in their possession and make sure the data is "accurate, relevant, timely and complete," and to reduce that data to the minimum needed for official purposes. Agencies will also need to review their use of Social Security numbers and identify areas where such information is unnecessary, or where alternate information could be used. Also, agencies are required by mid-September to come up with a plan for eliminating the SSNs within 18 months.

On the security front, Johnson’s directive asks federal agencies to encrypt all data on mobile computers and devices carrying agency data. It also asks them to control remote access to agency networks via two-factor authentication and to use a "timeout" function for remote devices, requiring user re-authentication. In addition, the memorandum calls for database access monitoring to make sure that all access to private data is logged.

Security incident reporting and handling requirements for agencies have been modified as well. Going forward, agencies will be required to report all suspected and confirmed information breaches to US-CERT. The memo formalizes the need for agencies to notify individuals whose personal information might have been compromised in a security breach.

Johnson’s May 22 memo was released exactly one year after the disclosure of the massive security breach at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in May 2006. That breach involved the potential compromise of personal data belonging to over 26 million veterans.

The memo follows through on a set of interim recommendations released in April by the President Bush’s Identity Theft Task Force (PDF format). The task force offered nine specific recommendations for protecting personal data and responding to data breaches that it wanted the OMB to communicate to all federal agencies. It is those recommendations that were articulated in Johnson’s memo of last week.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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