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TSA Lacks Cybersecurity Expertise to Manage Pipeline Security Program: Report

Audit Finds Weaknesses in TSA’s Pipeline Security Program Management

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Transportation Security Administration (TSA) needs to address weaknesses in the management of key aspects of its pipeline security program, an audit from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) shows.

The TSA is responsible for the federal oversight of the physical security and cybersecurity of the more than 2.7 million miles of pipeline that transport and distribute natural gas, oil, and other hazardous products throughout the United States.

Following a review in how the TSA manages its pipeline security program, the GAO made a series of recommendations in December 2018 to address discovered weaknesses, which include updating pipeline security guidelines, planning for workforce needs, assessing pipeline risks, and monitoring program performance.

This week, the Office released an updated report (PDF) that also includes the information regarding the actions that TSA has taken as of April 2019 to address the discovered issues.

Although it has incorporated most of the principles and practices from the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity in its Pipeline Security Guidelines, TSA did not implement all elements from the NIST framework and lacks a documented process for regularly reviewing and revising its guidelines.

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“TSA has since outlined procedures for reviewing its guidelines, which GAO is reviewing to determine if they sufficiently address the recommendation,” the report reads.

The audit also found that the number of TSA security reviews of pipeline systems has varied over time, mainly due to staffing limitations within the Pipeline Security Branch. In fact, staffing levels for the branch have varied significantly as well, from one full-time equivalent in 2014 to six from fiscal years 2015 through 2018.

“Further, TSA does not have a strategic workforce plan to help ensure it identifies the skills and competencies—such as the required level of cybersecurity expertise—necessary to carry out its pipeline security responsibilities,” the report reveals.

GAO recommended that a strategic workforce plan be developed and TSA aims at completing it by July 2019.

According to the report, the fact that TSA hasn’t updated its risk assessment methodology since 2014 is one of the factors that likely limit the usefulness of the methodology, as it doesn’t reflect current threats to the pipeline industry. On top of that, it hasn’t fully documented sources of data and underlying assumptions and judgments regarding threat and vulnerability inputs.

Thus, GAO recommended that TSA update its risk ranking tool to include data to keep up with the evolution of current threats, and says that TSA reported in April 2019 that it has taken steps to address these recommendations.

The audit also discovered that TSA has been mainly relying on security reviews to assess the effectiveness of its efforts to reduce pipeline security risks, but that it hasn’t tracked the status of key security review recommendations for the past 5 years. TSA plans to address the issue by November 2019.

“Given that many pipelines transport volatile, flammable, or toxic oil and liquids, and given the potential consequences of a successful physical or cyber-attack, pipeline systems are attractive targets for terrorists, hackers, foreign nations, criminal groups, and others with malicious intent,” the report reads.