Hacking the Tax Man


As if tax season weren't enough of a joy, now we have the security of our e-filed returns to worry about. In a report given surprisingly scant coverage, the General Accounting Office detailed the many ways in which the IRS's security systems stink. GAO hackers found that the e-filing system was riddled with holes, including vulnerability to access from what several outlets called "a common handheld computer."

But never fear: in a letter to the GAO, the Taxman - OK, the IRS commissioner, Charles Rossotti - said all those problems are in the past. (Yeah, and all those office pools for the NCAA tourney are entirely legal.)

As the Associated Press put it, the GAO found that "the IRS had not securely configured its operating systems, used adequate password management practices or required the encryption of electronic returns." What's more, the IRS didn't even know that the GAO got into its computers. And as Troy Wolverton pointed out in a thorough News.com piece, the agency has no effective system in place to spot hacker attacks, so there's no way of knowing whether anyone with less goodwill than the GAO grabbed Social Security numbers or other sensitive info last year.

Much to the IRS's delight, no one seems to think that news of the system's vulnerability - which the agency says it has shored up - will prevent dutiful citizens from e-filing this year. "People are going to look at the convenience of sending in their returns on the Web and go ahead and do it," said Rob Clyde, chief technologist for Symantec, in an Orlando Sentinel story that was one of few to go beyond cannibalizing the AP's report. Besides, when taxpayers realize that the e-file system skipped right over errors and processed $2.1 billion in refunds without proper authorization, filling out the 1040 online may finally become enjoyable.

- Michaela Cavallaro



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