Cybersecurity: HHS Defined Roles and Responsibilities, but Can Further Improve Collaboration

What GAO Found

The Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Information Security is responsible for managing department-wide cybersecurity. HHS clearly defined responsibilities for the divisions within that office to, among other things, document and implement a cybersecurity program, as required by the Federal Information Security Modernization Act of 2014.

For healthcare and public health critical infrastructure sector cybersecurity, HHS also defined responsibilities for five HHS entities. Among these entities are the Health Sector Cybersecurity Coordination Center, which was established to improve cybersecurity information sharing in the sector, and the Healthcare Threat Operations Center, a federal interagency program co-led by HHS and focused on, among other things, providing descriptive and actionable cyber data. Private-sector partners that receive information provided by the Health Sector Cybersecurity Coordination Center informed GAO that they could benefit from receiving more actionable threat information. However, this center does not routinely receive such information from the Healthcare Threat Operations Center, and therefore is not positioned to provide it to sector partners. This lack of sharing is due, in part, to HHS not describing coordination between the two entities in procedures defining their responsibilities for cybersecurity information sharing. Until HHS formalizes coordination for the two entities, they will continue to miss an opportunity to strengthen information sharing with sector partners.

Further, HHS entities led, or participated in, seven collaborative groups that focused on cybersecurity in the department and healthcare and public health sector. These entities regularly collaborated on cyber response efforts and provided cybersecurity information, guidance, and resources through these groups and other means during COVID-19 between March 2020 and December 2020. In addition, the HHS entities coordinated with the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to address cyber threats associated with COVID-19. Further, the HHS entities fully demonstrated consistency with four of the seven leading collaboration practices that GAO identified, and partially addressed the remaining three (see table). Until HHS takes action to fully demonstrate the remaining three leading practices, it cannot ensure that it is improving cybersecurity within the department and the healthcare and public health sector.

Extent to Which the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Demonstrated Leading Practices for Collaborating

Leading practice

Extent to which the HHS working groups demonstrated the leading practice

Define and track outcomes and accountability

◑ – five groups met this practice

Bridge organizational cultures

● – all seven groups met this practice

Identify leadership

● – all seven groups met this practice

Clarify roles and responsibilities

◑ – six groups met this practice

Include relevant participants in the group

● – all seven groups met this practice

Identify resources

● – all seven groups met this practice

Document and regularly update written guidance and agreements

◑ – six groups met this practice

Source: GAO analysis of HHS documentation. | GAO-21-403

Why GAO Did This Study

HHS and the healthcare and public health sector rely heavily on information systems to fulfill their missions, including delivering healthcare-related services and responding to national health emergencies, such as COVID-19. Federal laws and guidance have set requirements for HHS to address cybersecurity within the department and the sector. Federal guidance also requires collaboration and coordination to strengthen cybersecurity at HHS and in the sector.

GAO was asked to review HHS’s organizational approach to address cybersecurity. This report discusses HHS’s roles and responsibilities for departmental cybersecurity; HHS’s roles and responsibilities for healthcare and public health sector cybersecurity; and HHS’s efforts to collaborate to manage its cybersecurity responsibilities.

To perform its work, GAO reviewed documentation describing HHS’s cybersecurity roles and responsibilities, assessed those responsibilities for fragmentation, duplication, and overlap, and evaluated the department’s collaborative efforts against GAO’s leading practices for collaboration. GAO also interviewed relevant officials at HHS and CISA, and in the sector.

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    What GAO Found In its March 2021 high-risk series update, GAO reported that significant attention was needed to improve the federal government's management of information technology (IT) acquisitions and operations, and ensure the nation's cybersecurity. Regarding management of IT, overall progress in addressing this area has remained unchanged. Since 2019, GAO has emphasized that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and covered federal agencies need to continue to fully implement critical requirements of federal IT acquisition reform legislation, known as the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), to better manage tens of billions of dollars in IT investments. For example: OMB continued to demonstrate leadership commitment by issuing guidance to implement FITARA statutory provisions, but sustained leadership and expanded capacity were needed to improve agencies' management of IT. Agencies continued to make progress with reporting FITARA milestones and plans to modernize or replace obsolete IT investments, but significant work remained to complete these efforts. Agencies improved the involvement of their agency Chief Information Officers in the acquisition process, but greater cost savings could be achieved if IT acquisition shortcomings, such as reducing duplicative IT contracts, were addressed. In March 2021, GAO reiterated the need for agencies to address four major cybersecurity challenges facing the nation: (1) establishing a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy and performing effective oversight, (2) securing federal systems and information, (3) protecting cyber critical infrastructure, and (4) protecting privacy and sensitive data. GAO identified 10 actions for agencies to take to address these challenges. However, since 2019, progress in this area has regressed—GAO's 2021 rating of leadership commitment declined from met to partially met. To help address the leadership vacuum, in January 2021, Congress enacted a statute establishing the Office of the National Cyber Director. Although the director position has not yet been filled, on April 12 the President announced his intended nominee. Overall, the federal government needs to move with a greater sense of urgency to fully address cybersecurity challenges. In particular: Develop and execute a more comprehensive federal strategy for national cybersecurity and global cyberspace. In September 2020, GAO reported that the cyber strategy and implementation plan addressed some, but not all, of the desirable characteristics of national strategies, such as goals and resources needed. Mitigate global supply chain risks. In December 2020, GAO reported that few of the 23 civilian federal agencies it reviewed implemented foundational practices for managing information and communication technology supply chain risks. Enhance the federal response to cyber incidents. In July 2019, GAO reported that most of 16 selected federal agencies had deficiencies in at least one of the activities associated with incident response processes. Why GAO Did This Study The effective management and protection of IT has been a longstanding challenge in the federal government. Each year, the federal government spends more than $100 billion on IT and cyber-related investments; however, many of these investments have failed or performed poorly and often have suffered from ineffective management. Accordingly, GAO added improving the management of IT acquisitions and operations as a high-risk area in February 2015. Information security has been on the high-risk area since 1997. In its March 2021 high-risk update, GAO reported that significant actions were required to address IT acquisitions and operations. Further, GAO noted the urgent need for agencies to take 10 specific actions on four major cybersecurity challenges. GAO was asked to testify on federal agencies' efforts to address the management of IT and cybersecurity. For this testimony, GAO relied primarily on its March 2021 high-risk update and selected prior work across IT and cybersecurity topics.
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    In Crime News
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