Increasing Use of Data Telecommunications Calls for Stronger Protection and Improved Economies

LCD-81-1: Published: Nov 12, 1980. Publicly Released: Dec 12, 1980.

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Increasing requirements for modern data transmission services in recent years have resulted in a rapid proliferation of costly single purpose or single agency data telecommunications networks in the civil Government. The Government's increasing use of telecommunications to extend data processing systems raises a variety of new issues and management problems concerning the protection of data transmissions against unauthorized, unwarranted, and illegal uses. A major concern of Congress is to maintain the confidentiality of vast amounts of personal and other sensitive information collected, maintained, and disseminated by Federal agencies. Machine generated communications that are being transmitted over interstate and foreign telecommunications facilities are not protected by current laws against unauthorized interceptions.

Protection of data telecommunications against unauthorized wiretapping can be strengthened by amending telecommunication laws. Civil Government agencies need guidance to determine appropriate safeguards and controls for telecommunications. Executive level policies and guidance on telecommunications provide little assistance for operating agencies. Controls on Federal users and others authorized to collect and handle personal information should be strengthened to increase privacy protection for personal and other sensitive information, regardless of whether shared transmission facilities and related network controls are used. Data telecommunications networks in the civil Government are generally acquired from commercial telecommunications carriers by individual agencies for their own exclusive use. Some departments and agencies have taken or are taking actions to reduce their transmission costs through circuit sharing. GAO believes the consolidation of certain civil Government data telecommunications into a shared data telecommunications network could potentially reduce total Federal data telecommunications costs by at least 20 percent. Significant Government savings can be achieved through use of common user data telecommunications technology without conflicting with privacy objectives.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The study has been completed.

    Matter: Congress should limit the development and implementation of new separate and dedicated data telecommunications networks pending completion of the study, identifying the merits and problems of proceeding with a shared civil Government data telecommunication network, and congressional determination on whether to proceed with it.

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: There are no bills currently in Congress to rewrite the 1934 Communications Act.

    Matter: In revising the bills introduced into Congress to amend or rewrite the 1934 Communications Act and to amend the 1968 Crime Control Act, Congress should provide protective provisions against unauthorized interception of all forms of telecommunications, not just those forms limited to aural acquisition. This legislation must be consistent with: (1) the rights of individuals embodied in the Constitution; (2) the need to protect copyrighted, proprietary, and other similar information transmitted via telecommunications systems; (3) the legislatively mandated missions of Federal agencies involving national security, foreign affairs, domestic and foreign intelligence, and law enforcement; and (4) the modern wire and radio transmission technologies used both for voice and data telecommunications. A direct and simple way to improve the protective provisions would be to clarify the definition of intercept in the 1968 Crime Control Act.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of the Office of Management and Budget with the assistance of the Administrators of General Services and National Telecommunications and Information should provide to the appropriate oversight committees complete and accurate information on a potential shared data telecommunications network for civil Government agencies. This information should include: (1) a preliminary network design with levels of economy achievable; (2) provisions for privacy protection; (3) implications on industry and Federal policies for types of procurement, ownership, and management controls proposed; and (4) the impact on the affected civil agencies' data telecommunications costs and operations.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of the Office of Management and Budget should take appropriate action, including seeking concurrence from appropriate congressional oversight committees, to have the General Services Administration make or sponsor a study which will clearly identify the merits and problems of proceeding with a shared civil Government data telecommunications network instead of continuing with separate dedicated networks in such areas and for such agencies as would be reasonable and effective.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Network architectures have changed since this report was issued.

    Recommendation: The Director of the Office of Management and Budget should provide Congress with engineering analyses of selected architectures, including the comparative privacy and security strengths and weaknesses of these architectures, as well as those of the dedicated networks currently in use.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of the Office of Management and Budget, in cooperation with the Secretary of Commerce, should direct the Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to develop clear policy guidelines and standards for Government data transmissions protection. These guidelines and standards should: (1) be consistent with the computer security guidance published by the National Bureau of Standards for automated data processing; (2) require risk analyses for data telecommunications networks supporting data processing systems used to maintain personal or other sensitive data; and (3) include standards and implementing guidelines for determining the appropriateness of encoding data with encryption techniques for electronic transmissions, including those containing personal information.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

 

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