Prime Minister and Cabinet scolded for Gmail, Hotmail use

Weak passwords, web-based emails and unpatched software revealed by audit office

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has vowed to block access to public Cloud-based email websites on work computers it administers, after the auditor-general found use of Gmail and Hotmail accounts by staff risked internal information.

An audit (PDF) of the Australian Office of Financial Management, ComSuper, Medicare Australia and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet released this week found lax ICT security practices among all four agencies, including use of weak passwords and poor processes.

In particularly, the audit found staff at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet used unencrypted public Web-based email accounts on services like Gmail and Hotmail. Logs obtained by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) revealed some staff had used the accounts on a regular basis.

In its report, the audit office recommended the use of public accounts be blocked on agency ICT systems to prevent external attacks and information leaks. The department agreed it would block the services from 1 July in response to the report.

In its review of ICT security practices at other agencies, a password test applied by the office found all four agencies had weak passwords on IT administrator and service accounts.

“These accounts, which allow a high level of access across ICT systems, should use suitably complex password configurations to reduce the potential for inappropriate access,” read the audit.

The ANAO also discovered one agency lacked a documented process for reviewing Internet access logs, increasing the risk of exposing the agency to external intrusion.

Two agencies were using third party software applications with outdated patches.

“Patches should be applied accordingly, to better protect their security, especially given their known vulnerability to attack,” read the report.

Other recommendations included the use of content filtering to prevent access to inappropriate websites and using certification for internal network gateways.

“While each agency had appropriate certification for their main Gateways, two agencies were also using uncertified Gateways. The use of uncertified Gateways exposes the agencies to an increased risk of unauthorised access from outside the internal network,” read the report.

Overall, the ANAO found that the audited agencies were complying with ICT security requirements, however it recommended all agencies review the integrity of administrator account passwords.

The release of the audit follows a similar report conducted by the New South Wales auditor general ,Peter Achterstraat, in February 2010 into NSW state departments.

It found that while testing performed by experts found no major security flaws, several opportunities to improve electronic information security existed.

This included the government database access not being secured in Web applications, which would potentially leave databases open to SQL injection attacks and consequently data theft.

In addition, the failure to terminate remote access sessions, transmission of data between systems and remote applications in easily read and modifiable form, weak encryption methods, login credentials stored by the user’s Web browser, and out of date operating system software with known vulnerabilitys were also identified as areas where IT security could be improved.

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