Government Passwords Are Incredibly Easy to Hack

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Some of the federal government's most sensitive data are protected by passwords that wouldn't pass muster for even the most basic civilian email account, according to a report. By Alex Brown

Some of the federal government’s most sensitive data are protected by passwords that wouldn’t pass muster for even the most basic civilian email account, according to a new congressional report.

Passwords like “password,” “qwerty,” and users’ names have left Homeland Security Department data vulnerable, says a report released Tuesday by the Republican staff of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

And the password fiasco, the report says, is only the tip of the iceberg—plenty of other agencies have lost sensitive data as well.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission left nuclear-plant security details on a shared drive with no protection. Hackers swiped Information on the nation’s dams—including their weaknesses and catastrophic potential if breached—from an Army Corps of Engineers database.

All that’s too much for Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the panel’s top Republican. “Weaknesses in the federal government’s own cybersecurity have put at risk the electrical grid, our financial markets, our emergency-response systems, and our citizens’ personal information,” he said.

So far, the security failings have been more comedic than catastrophic (in one instance, hackers used the Emergency Broadcast System to warn TV viewers of a zombie outbreak). But the report warned we may not be so lucky in the future—and the problem appears to be widespread:

In addition, hackers have penetrated, taken control of, caused damage to, and/or stolen sensitive personal and official information from computer systems at the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Defense, State, Labor, Energy, and Commerce; NASA; the Environmental Protection Agency; the Office of Personnel Management; the Federal Reserve; the Commodity Futures Trading Commission; the Food and Drug Administration; the U.S. Copyright Office; and the National Weather Service.

These are just hacks whose details became known to the public,” the report added.

At the Nuclear Regulatory Commission—responsible for safeguarding the nation’s nuclear plants—faith in IT is so bad that employees have started buying their own computers and setting up separate networks, which creates a whole new series of security concerns.

Things aren’t much better at the Department of Homeland Security. “To take just one example, weaknesses found in the office of the Chief Information Officer for ICE included 10 passwords written down, 15 FOUO (For Official Use Only) documents left out, three keys, six unlocked laptops—even two credit cards left out,” the report stated.

NRC spokesman Eliot Brenner said many of that agency’s safety issues have already been addressed. All 44 security recommendations in reports cited by the committee have been closed or resolved pending final implementation, he said. “The NRC takes information security very seriously and works continuously toward improvements,” Brenner said.

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