In this report, the GAO severely chastised the Internal Revenue Service for “pervasive weaknesses” in the security of the IRS IT systems. According to this report, these weaknesses “continue to threaten the confidentiality and availability of IRS’s financial processing systems and information, and limit assurance of the integrity and reliability of its financial and taxpayer information.”
Now you might wonder why the IRS would do such a poor job with IT security. Surely the IRS is aware of the need for IT security!
The reason for the IRS problems is simple. The IRS systems are highly complex. And highly complex systems are notoriously difficult to make secure. Among the problems noted by the GAO:
- The IRS does not limit user rights to only what is needed to perform specific job functions
- The IRS does not encrypt sensitive data
- The IRS does not effectively monitor changes on its mainframe.
This is ironic, given how important the IRS considers security. But the GAO finding is an excellent illustration of a point I make many times: controlling complexity is more important than controlling security. A system whose complexity has been controlled can be made secure relatively easily. A system whose complexity has not been controlled cannot be made secure, regardless of how much effort is expended.
Those readers familiar with my approach to controlling complexity (SIP) know that I advocate a form of mathematical partitioning to greatly reduce an IT system’s complexity. This process results in a number of sets of synergistic business functionality. I call these sets ABCs for autonomous business capabilities.
These sets represent a mathematical partition and that partition extends through the data ownership. Because of this, it is relatively easy to fix all three of the problems noted above with the IRS system.
For example, it is relatively easy to ensure that a given user need be given no more access rights than they need to complete a specific job, since they are given rights to business functionality, not to data.
It is relatively easy to encrypt data, since data moves between business functions only though well-defined messages and these messages are easily encrypted.
It is relatively easy to effectively monitor all changes made to the mainframe and associate those changes with specific business events and specific users, since any data is owned by specific ABCs and is never visible outside the ABC (except by messaging contracts).
The good news is that the IRS has responded to the GAO report by stating that it is addressing all of the issues raised. The bad news is that it is going about this in exactly the wrong way.
According to Linda E. Stiff, Acting Commissioner of the IRS, “…the IRS has obtained additional expert-level technical support to assist in the development of a comprehensive security analysis of the architecture, processes, and operations of the mainframe computing center complex in order to develop a roadmap and strategy to address several of the issues noted by the GAO in the report.”
In other words, the IRS is going to continue making the same mistakes that led to its current problems: worrying about security and ignoring the real problem, complexity.
This is unfortunate. It means that for the near term, we can expect the IRS systems to continue to be “unprotected from individuals and groups with malicious intent who can intrude and use their access to obtain sensitive information, commit fraud, disrupt operations, or launch attacks against other computer systems and networks,” as the GAO describes the IRS systems today.