Cloud Security , Healthcare , Industry Specific

Poor Cloud Controls at HHS Put Families, Children at Risk

Watchdog Audit Finds Security Gaps at HHS Children and Families Administration
Poor Cloud Controls at HHS Put Families, Children at Risk
Image: HHS ACF

A Department of Health and Human Services division that administers funding, training and other services to children and families is putting sensitive data at high risk because of gaps in cloud security controls and practices, according to a watchdog agency report.

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The HHS Office of Inspector General report released Monday says a 2022 audit and penetration testing of cybersecurity systems for HHS' Administration for Children and Families found several deficiencies, including failing to accurately identify and inventory all of the division's cloud computing assets.

"This occurred because ACF did not establish policies and procedures to inventory and monitor cloud information system components," HHS OIG said.

"If ACF does not accurately inventory its components, it may overlook implementing the controls to adequately secure them. As a result, out-of-date, misconfigured or unpatched websites that are susceptible to a cyberattack may exist unbeknownst to ACF in its computing environment."

"This could lead to unauthorized modifications and execution of systems commands to compromise sensitive data, including personally identifiable information such as unaccompanied children's records. In addition, the ability to detect a threat or indicator of compromise from those components may be limited, potentially allowing a bad actor to gain a foothold on the network and compromise or attack other components."

HHS OIG also found that although ACF had implemented some security controls to protect its cloud information systems, "it did not effectively implement several other security controls to protect its cloud information systems in accordance with federal requirements and guidelines," the report said.

Overall, HHS OIG said it found 19 security controls for ACF cloud information systems that need to be improved to comply with federal requirements. "During our testing, we were able to exploit certain vulnerabilities to gain additional system privileges to access sensitive data and obtain unauthorized control of cloud components. The most critical findings were related to unintended exposure of sensitive information and a lack of effective input validation on public web sites."

HHS OIG said ACF did not perform adequate cloud and web application technical testing techniques against its systems to proactively identify the vulnerabilities that the audit discovered. "As a result, ACF data hosted in certain systems may potentially be at a high risk of compromise," the report says.

"Failure to accurately inventory cloud assets and implement robust security controls not only jeopardizes sensitive data but also undermines public trust in the agency's ability to safeguard vital information," HHS OIG said in a separate statement about the report.

The potential compromise of ACF data underscores the critical importance of addressing these vulnerabilities promptly and effectively, HHS OIG said.

"As custodians of sensitive data, ensuring the integrity and security of information systems is paramount for governmental agencies. This report serves as a clarion call, emphasizing the imperative for proactive measures to fortify cybersecurity defenses and mitigate risks posed by evolving threats," HHS OIG said.

ACF uses cloud service models to process, store or transmit certain ACF mission-related information, according to HHS OIG. During the audit, ACF hosted approximately 62% of its information systems with cloud service providers.

In a Feb. 15 correspondence included in the report, ACF said it agrees with HHS OIG's five recommendations to mitigate the security weaknesses and that it has already begun to address some of the issues raised by the watchdog agency.

HHS OIG's recommendations to ACF are:

  1. Update and maintain a complete and accurate inventory of information systems hosted in the cloud.
  2. Remediate the 19 security control findings in accordance with NIST SP 800-53.
  3. Update its cloud security procedures to include detailed steps for operational staff to effectively implement cloud security baselines in accordance with HHS requirements.
  4. Leverage cloud security assessment tools to identify misconfigurations and weak cybersecurity controls in its cloud infrastructure.
  5. Conduct testing of its cloud information systems that includes the emulation of an adversary's tactics and techniques on a defined reoccurring basis.

ACF did not immediately respond to Information Security Media Group's request for comment on the report.

HHS OIG in a statement to ISMG said the agency's audit of ACF spotlights critical cloud security issues for other government entities.*

"Important cloud security lessons for agencies include inventorying all of its cloud systems and prioritizing detecting shadow IT in the cloud by identifying unauthorized use of cloud services. Agencies should also evaluate the default system settings for all cloud services in use to determine if they are secured in accordance with government requirements or industry benchmarks," the HHS OIG said.

"Once the cloud system or component is secured, implement a continuous monitoring strategy to identify threats and vulnerabilities, and run exercises to emulate a cyber adversary's tactics, techniques and procedures against your cloud systems to confirm that system controls are working effectively."

If proper security controls are not operating effectively, the system could be compromised and the sensitive data could be improperly used to commit various crimes including fraud, HHS OIG said. "In addition, an entity's overall mission could adversely impacted if sensitive data is corrupted or destroyed by bad actors. In order to protect the agency mission and the people that rely on the agency’s services or protection, the cloud systems and data they store or process must protected."

*Updated to include statement from HHS OIG on April 3, 12:15 UTC.

About the Author

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee

Executive Editor, HealthcareInfoSecurity, ISMG

McGee is executive editor of Information Security Media Group's media site. She has about 30 years of IT journalism experience, with a focus on healthcare information technology issues for more than 15 years. Before joining ISMG in 2012, she was a reporter at InformationWeek magazine and news site and played a lead role in the launch of InformationWeek's healthcare IT media site.

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