Critical Infrastructure Protection: Agencies Need to Enhance Oversight of Ransomware Practices and Assess Federal … – Government Accountability Office

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Critical Infrastructure Protection: Agencies Need to Enhance Oversight of Ransomware Practices and Assess Federal Support | U.S. GAO


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Fast Facts

Ransomware—software that makes data and systems unusable unless ransom is paid—can severely impact government operations and critical infrastructure. Such attacks have led to significant financial losses, health care disruptions, and more.

Most federal agencies that lead and manage risk for 4 critical sectors—manufacturing, energy, healthcare and public health, and transportation systems—have assessed or plan to assess risks associated with ransomware. But agencies haven’t fully gauged the use of leading cybersecurity practices or whether federal support has mitigated risks effectively in the sectors.

Our recommendations address these issues.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Ransomware—software that makes data and systems unusable unless ransom payments are made—is having increasingly devastating impacts. For example, the Department of the Treasury reported that the total value of U.S. ransomware-related incidents reached $886 million in 2021, a 68 percent increase compared to 2020 (see figure).

Treasury Reported Dollar Value of U.S. Ransomware-Related Incidents

Treasury Reported Dollar Value of U.S. Ransomware-Related Incidents

In addition to monetary losses, ransomware has led to other impacts, such as the inability to provide emergency care when hospital IT systems are unusable. The FBI reported that 870 critical infrastructure organizations were victims of ransomware in 2022, affecting 14 of the 16 critical infrastructure sectors. Among those incidents, almost half were from four sectors—critical manufacturing, energy, healthcare and public health, and transportation systems. The full impact of ransomware is likely not known because reporting is generally voluntary. The Department of Homeland Security is planning to issue new reporting rules by March 2024 that could provide a more complete picture of ransomware’s impact.

The four selected sectors’ adoption of leading practices to address ransomware is largely unknown. None of the federal agencies designated as the lead for risk management for selected sectors have determined the extent of adoption of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s recommended practices for addressing ransomware. Doing so would help the lead federal agencies be a more effective partner in national efforts to combat ransomware.

Most of the six selected lead federal agencies have assessed or plan to assess risks of cybersecurity threats including ransomware for their respective sectors, as required by law. Regarding lead agencies assessing their support of sector efforts to address ransomware, half of the agencies have evaluated aspects of their support. For example, agencies have received and assessed feedback on their ransomware guidance and briefings. However, none have fully assessed the effectiveness of their support to sectors, as recommended by the National Infrastructure Protection Plan. Fully assessing effectiveness could help address sector concerns about agency communication, coordination, and timely sharing of threat and incident information.

Why GAO Did This Study

The nation’s 16 critical infrastructure sectors provide essential services such as electricity, healthcare, and gas and oil distribution. However, cyber threats to critical infrastructure, such as ransomware, represent a significant national security challenge.

This report (1) describes the reported impact of ransomware attacks on the nation’s critical infrastructure, (2) assesses federal agency efforts to oversee sector adoption of leading federal practices, and (3) evaluates federal agency efforts to assess ransomware risks and the effectiveness of related support.

To do so, GAO selected four critical infrastructure sectors—critical manufacturing, energy, healthcare and public health, and transportation systems. For each sector, GAO analyzed documentation, such as incident reporting and risk analysis, and compared efforts to leading cybersecurity guidance. GAO also interviewed sector and federal agency officials to obtain information on ransomware-related impacts, practices, and support.

Recommendations

GAO is making 11 recommendations to four agencies to, among other things, determine selected sectors’ adoption of cybersecurity practices. DHS and HHS agreed with their recommendations. DOE partially agreed with one recommendation and disagreed with another. DOT agreed with one recommendation, partially agreed with one, and disagreed with a third. GAO continues to believe that the recommendations are valid.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should, in coordination with CISA and sector entities, determine the extent to which the energy sector is adopting leading cybersecurity practices that help reduce the sector’s risk of ransomware. (Recommendation 1)
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should, in coordination with CISA and sector entities, develop and implement routine evaluation procedures that measure the effectiveness of federal support in helping reduce the risk of ransomware to the energy sector. (Recommendation 2)
Department of Health and Human Services The Secretary of Health and Human Services should, in coordination with CISA and sector entities, determine the extent to which the healthcare and public health sector is adopting leading cybersecurity practices that help reduce the sector’s risk of ransomware. (Recommendation 3)
Department of Health and Human Services The Secretary of Health and Human Services should, in coordination with CISA and sector entities, develop and implement routine evaluation procedures that measure the effectiveness of federal support in helping reduce the risk of ransomware to the healthcare and public health sector. (Recommendation 4)
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security should, in coordination with CISA and sector entities, determine the extent to which the critical manufacturing sector is adopting leading cybersecurity practices that help reduce the sector’s risk of ransomware. (Recommendation 5)
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security should, in coordination with CISA and sector entities, develop and implement routine evaluation procedures that measure the effectiveness of federal support in helping reduce the risk of ransomware to the critical manufacturing sector. (Recommendation 6)
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security should, in coordination with CISA, co-SRMAs, and sector entities, determine the extent to which the transportation systems sector is adopting leading cybersecurity practices that help reduce the sector’s risk of ransomware. (Recommendation 7)
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security should, in coordination with CISA, co-SRMAs, and sector entities, develop and implement routine evaluation procedures that measure the effectiveness of federal support in helping reduce the risk of ransomware to the transportation systems sector. (Recommendation 8)
Department of Transportation The Secretary of Transportation should, in coordination with CISA, co-SRMAs, and sector entities, assess ransomware risks to the transportation systems sector. (Recommendation 9)
Department of Transportation The Secretary of Transportation should, in coordination with CISA, co-SRMAs, and sector entities, determine the extent to which the transportation systems sector is adopting leading cybersecurity practices that help reduce the sector’s risk of ransomware. (Recommendation 10)
Department of Transportation The Secretary of Transportation should, in coordination with CISA, co-SRMAs, and sector entities, develop and implement routine evaluation procedures that measure the effectiveness of federal support in helping reduce the risk of ransomware to the transportation systems sector. (Recommendation 11)

Full Report

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Topics

Critical infrastructureCritical infrastructure protectionCybersecurityCyberspace threatsFederal agenciesHealth careHomeland securityInformation technologyManufacturingPublic healthRisk managementTransportation systems

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