IRS Unencrypted E-Mail Use Puts Taxpayer Information at Risk

For over 50 years, Bloomberg BNA’s renowned flagship daily news service, Daily Tax Report® has helped leading practitioners and policymakers stay on the cutting edge of taxation and...

By Colleen Murphy

Nov. 17 — Internal Revenue Service employees sent hundreds of unencrypted e-mails containing sensitive taxpayer information, and some used personal e-mail accounts for official agency business, its watchdog said.

Unprotected e-mails put taxpayers at risk of identity theft, or inappropriate disclosure of information about their identity and tax returns, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration said in a report released Nov. 17. The report reveals an awkward truth for an agency that is required to protect taxpayer information and that is laser-focused on preventing data breaches.

TIGTA reviewed a random sample of e-mails that 80 employees in the Small Business/Self-Employed Division sent during four weeks in May and June 2015, according to the report.

About half of the employees sent a total of 326 unencrypted e-mails that contained information about 8,031 different taxpayers to other employees or non-IRS accounts, according to the report. Six employees sent 20 e-mails to personal e-mail accounts that “involved official IRS business,” TIGTA said.

‘Minimal Risk.’

The report doesn’t identify any instances where unencrypted information was sent to an unintended recipient, SB/SE Commissioner Karen Schiller said in response to the report. The majority of the e-mails were sent within the agency’s firewall, from one employee to another, she said.

“These communications are within the extensive protections of the IRS firewall, and pose a minimal risk of disclosure or access. But, nonetheless, we agree that encryption provides an added layer of protection,” she said.

Lock It Down

While the IRS has penalties—ranging from a warning to removal—for employees that put taxpayer information in unencrypted e-mails, there “was no evidence provided” that the penalties were enforced, TIGTA said.

Encryption is an important security step to prevent unauthorized access to information. The IRS should “consider the feasibility” of ensuring all tax return information is encrypted, and consider requiring e-mails to be encrypted by default, TIGTA said.

The IRS should make sure managers understand and take appropriate disciplinary action when e-mail violations occur. The IRS will send an e-mail to all managers to “stress the importance of managerial awareness,” according to the report.

Information Exposed

The IRS also didn’t always share sensitive data through secure file transfer technology, TIGTA found in a separate report also released Nov. 17. TIGTA found 61 servers with “high-risk vulnerabilities,” 10 servers with outdated operating systems and 32 servers missing important security patches, according to the report.

In response to the report, the IRS agreed to ensure that data sharing is authorized, but said it isn’t possible to ensure end-to-end encryption on all data.

“We continue to have multiple process improvements underway at the IRS to further ensure the appropriate controls are in place and enforced,” Gina Garza, the agency’s chief information officer, said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Colleen Murphy in Washington at cmurphy@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Meg Shreve at mshreve@bna.com

For More Information

Text of the TIGTA report, “Employees Sometimes Did Not Adhere to E-mail Policies Which increased the Risk of Improper Disclosure of Taxpayer Information” (2017-30-010), is at http://src.bna.com/j9p.

Text of the TIGTA report, “Improvements Are Needed to Ensure the Protection of Data Transfers to External Partners” (2017-20-004), is at http://src.bna.com/kal.

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.