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Review of the United States Marshals Service's Prisoner Tracking System

Report No. 04-29
August 2004
Office of the Inspector General

Appendix 6
General Accounting Office
Federal Information System Controls Audit Manual

Application Controls Review Guidelines

The general controls guidelines used for this audit were obtained from Chapter 4, "Evaluating and Testing Application Controls," of the GAO's FISCAM. The information below represents only those sections from the FISCAM that serve as the basis for the vulnerabilities identified during our review of the Prisoner Tracking System.18


Application controls are the structure, policies, and procedures that apply to separate, individual application systems, such as accounts payable, inventory, payroll, grants, or loans. An application system is typically a collection or group of individual computer programs that relate to a common function. In the federal government, some applications may be complex comprehensive systems, involving numerous computer programs and organizational units, such as those associated with benefit payment systems. For the purposes of this document, application controls encompass both the routines contained within the computer program code, and the policies and procedures associated with user activities, such as manual measures performed by the user to determine that data were processed accurately by the computer.

Application controls help make certain that transactions are valid, properly authorized, and completely and accurately processed by the computer. They are commonly categorized into three phases of a processing cycle:

  • input - data are authorized, converted to an automated form, and entered into the application in an accurate, complete, and timely manner;
  • processing - data are properly processed by the computer and files are updated correctly; and
  • output - files and reports generated by the application actually occur and accurately reflect the results of processing, and reports are controlled and distributed to the authorized users.

Some guides provide additional categories of application controls. For example, data origination is a breakout of input it controls to focus on source documents and their need for authorization and proper preparation and control. Also, data storage and retrieval focuses on access to and use of data files and protecting their integrity.

Instead of using the phases of a processing cycle, this document uses control categories that better tie-in with the Specific Control Evaluation Worksheets (SCE) found in the Financial Audit Manual. The SCE is used to document the controls evaluation and is prepared for each significant accounting application. Included on the SCE are columns for recording the control objectives and control techniques being evaluated, and accuracy including whether the assertion and related transactions are authorized, complete, valid, and accurate. The control objectives and techniques addressed in this chapter are consistent with other guidance, but our categorization, tying to the SCE, are the following:

  • Authorization controls - This is most closely aligned with the financial statement accounting assertion of existence or occurrence. This assertion, in part, concerns the validity of transactions and ensures that they represent economic events that actually occurred during a given period.
  • Completeness controls - This directly relates to the financial statement accounting assertion on completeness, which deals with whether all valid transactions are recorded and properly classified.
  • Accuracy controls - This most directly relates with the financial statement assertion on valuation or allocation. This assertion deals with whether transactions are recorded at correct amounts. The control category, however, is not limited to financial information, but also addresses the accuracy of other data elements.
  • Controls over integrity of processing and data files - These controls, if deficient, could nullify each of the above control types and allow the occurrence of unauthorized transactions, as well as contribute to incomplete and inaccurate data.


Only authorized transactions should be entered into the application system and processed by the computer.

Critical Elements

AN-1 All data are authorized before entering the application system
AN-2 Restrict data entry terminals to authorized users for authorized purposes
AN-3 Master files and exception reporting help ensure all data are processed and are authorized

Critical Element AN-1: All data are authorized before entering the application system

Data should be authorized before it is entered into the application system. Federal financial management systems are often characterized as large complex 'legacy' systems and often involve a multitude of documents that flow through various work steps. Paper source documents still play a significant role for originating data that enter application systems in the federal government. These source documents should fall under control measures so that unauthorized transactions are not submitted to and processed by the application. Also, data - whether from a source document or not - should undergo an independent or supervisory review prior to entering the application.

AN-1.1 Source documents are controlled and require authorizing signatures

Control over source documents should begin even before data is recorded on the document. Access restrictions over blank source documents should prevent unauthorized personnel from obtaining a blank source document, recording unauthorized information, and inserting the document in the flow with authorized documents and possibly causing a fraudulent or malicious transaction to occur. Use of pre-numbered source documents could help identify unauthorized documents that fall outside the range of authorized numbers for documents being prepared for data entry.

Key source documents for an application should require an authorizing signature, and the document should provide space for the signature by an authorized official.

AN-1.2 Supervisory or independent reviews of data occur before entering the application system.

Providing supervisory or independent review of data before entering the application system helps prevent the occurrence of unauthorized transactions. A data control unit is effective for this purpose and this function has evolved as technology has advanced. With earlier systems, source documents were batched in the user department and sent to a data control unit that was organizationally under the information systems department. This unit monitored data entry and processing of the documents, seeing that all batches were received, entered, and processed completely. In addition, personnel in this unit verified that each source document was properly prepared and authorized before the data on the document was entered into the system.

This function has migrated to the user department as it gained access to application systems through computer terminals. Several or more personnel in the user department may now enter source documents into a transaction file that is not released for processing until a supervisory or independent review occurs. A user department control unit may have the responsibility to see that entered transactions are supported by a source document that contains a valid authorizing signature. Also, supervisors in the user department may hold this responsibility. These application systems may have a separate authorization screen accessed by computer terminal, by control unit, or by supervisory personnel. After verifying the input transactions, the control unit or supervisory personnel enter the required authorization and release the data for further processing.

Critical Element AN-2: Restrict data entry terminals to authorized users for authorized purposes

The integrity of application data can be compromised by unauthorized personnel who have unrestricted access to data entry terminals, as well as by authorized users who are not restricted in what transactions they can enter. Without limits, unauthorized personnel and authorized users could enter fraudulent or malicious transactions. To counter this risk, both physical and logical controls are needed to restrict data entry terminals to authorized users for authorized purposes.

AN-2.1 Data entry terminals are secured and restricted to authorized users

Data entry terminals should be located in physically secure rooms. When terminals are not in use, these rooms should be locked, or the terminals themselves should be capable of being secured to prevent unauthorized use. Supervisors should sign on to each terminal device, or authorize terminal usage from a program file server, before an operator can sign on to begin work for the day. Each operator should be required to use a unique password and identification code before being granted access to the system.

Data entry terminals should be connected to the system only during specified periods of the day, which corresponds with the business hours of the data entry personnel. Each terminal should automatically disconnect from the system when not used after a specified period of time.

Where dial-up access is used to connect terminals to the system, connection should not be completed until the system calls back to the terminal. These terminals should generate a unique identifier code for computer verification. Such procedures help limit access to known, authorized terminals.

On-line access logs should be maintained by the system, for example, through the use of security software, and should be reviewed regularly for unauthorized access attempts. All transactions should be logged as they are entered, along with the terminal ID that was used, and the ID of the person entering the data. This builds an audit trail and helps hold personnel accountable for the data they enter.


All authorized transactions should be entered into and completely processed by the computer.

Critical Elements

CP-1 All authorized transactions are entered into and processed by the computer
CP-2 Reconciliations are performed to verify data completeness

A control for completeness is one of the most basic application controls, but is essential to ensure that all transactions are processed, and missing or duplicate transactions are identified. The most commonly encountered controls for completeness include the use of record counts and control totals, computer sequence checking, computer matching of transaction data with data in a master or suspense file, and checking of reports for transaction data.

CP-1.2 Computer sequence checking

This control begins by providing each transaction with a unique sequential number. Some transactions originate on source documents with preassigned serial numbers. This number should be entered into the computer along with the other data on the transaction. The computer can identify numbers missing from the sequence and provide a report of those numbers. The missing numbers should be investigated to determine whether they are numbers for voided source documents, or are valid documents that may have been lost or misplaced.

For transactions not on source documents with preassigned serial numbers, the computer can assign a unique sequential number as the data is entered. At a later point in processing, such as when transaction data updates a master file, the computer can verify that all numbers are accounted for. Again, missing numbers are reported for investigation.

Sequence checking is also valuable in identifying duplicate transactions. For example, two transactions with the same preassigned serial number for a source document would indicate that the transaction had been erroneously entered a second time. As another example, a file of sequential numbers for purchase orders could help prevent paying for the purchase more than once. After the purchased goods and vendor's bill are received, a payment transaction with the purchase order number would be matched with the file containing all purchase order numbers, and an indicator for the payment would be recorded on the file for that purchase. The payment indicator would cause following payment transactions for the same purchase order to be rejected and reported for investigation.


The recording of valid and accurate data into an application system is essential to provide for an effective system that produces reliable results.


AY-1 Data entry design features contribute to data accuracy
AY-2 Data validation and editing are performed to identify erroneous data
AY-3 Erroneous data are captured, reported, investigated, and corrected
AY-4 Output reports are reviewed to help maintain data accuracy and validity

Critical Element AY-3: Erroneous data are captured, reported, investigated, and corrected

Transactions detected with errors need to be controlled to ensure that they are corrected and reentered in a timely manner. During data entry, particularly with more modern systems, an error can be identified and corrected at the data entry terminal. With errors identified during the data processing cycle, however, a break generally has been made from the data entry terminal. Therefore, errors identified cannot be communicated in a real-time mode back to personnel entering the data for immediate correction. An automated error suspense file is an essential element to controlling these data errors, and the errors need to be effectively reported back to the user department for investigation and correction.

AY-3.2 Erroneous data are reported back to the user department for investigation and correction

Systems that allow user groups to enter data at a computer terminal often allow data to be edited as it is entered, and generally the systems allow immediate correction of errors as they are identified. Error messages should clearly indicate what the error is and what corrective action is necessary. Errors identified at a later point in processing should be reported to the user originating the transaction for correction.

Some systems may use error reports to communicate to the user department the rejected transactions in need of correction. More modern systems will provide user departments' access to a file containing erroneous transactions. Using a computer terminal, users can initiate corrective actions. Again, error messages should clearly indicate what the error is and what corrective action is necessary. The user responsible for originating the transaction should be responsible for correcting the error. All corrections should be reviewed and approved by supervisors before being reentered into the system, or released for processing if corrected from a computer terminal.

Critical Element AY-4: Output reports are reviewed to help maintain data accuracy and validity

Output can be in several forms, including printed reports, data accessible on-line by users, and computer files that will be used in a later processing cycle, or by other programs in the application. Output should be reviewed and control information should be reconciled to determine whether errors occurred during processing. Various reports are typically produced by application systems that, if reviewed, help maintain the data's accuracy and validity. Production and distribution of these reports need to be controlled, and to be effective, they need to be reviewed by user department personnel.

AY-4.1 Control output production and distribution

Someone should be assigned responsibilities for seeing that all outputs are produced and distributed in accordance with the requirements and design of the application system. In larger organizations with mainframe computer environments, this responsibility is typically assigned as part of the responsibilities of a data control group, which falls within the information systems department. This group, or some alternative, should maintain a schedule by application that shows the output products produced, when they should be completed, whom the recipients are, the copies needed, and when they are to be distributed. The group should review output products for general acceptability and reconcile control information to determine the completeness of processing.

Printed reports should contain proper identification, including a title page with the report name, time and date of production, and the processing period covered by the report. Reports should also have an "end-of-report" message to positively indicate the end of a report. A report may have pages missing at the end of the report, which may go undetected without this type of message. Controls and procedures are needed to ensure the proper distribution of output to authorized users. Without control over distribution, users may not receive needed output in a timely manner, and unauthorized persons may gain access to output containing privacy or sensitive information. Each output should be logged, manually if not done automatically, along with the recipients of the output, including outputs that are transmitted to a user's terminal device. For these transmissions, the computer system should automatically check the output message before displaying, writing, or printing to make sure the output has not reached the wrong terminal device. In the user department, outputs transmitted should be summarized daily and printed for each terminal device, and reviewed by supervisors.

Occasionally, errors may be identified in output products requiring corrective action, including possibly rerunning application programs to produce the correct product. A control log of output product errors should be maintained, including the corrective actions taken. Output from reruns should be subjected to the same quality review as the original output.


Examples of items to cover:

  • Procedures ensure that the current versions of production programs and data files are used during processing.
  • Programs include routines to verify that the proper version of the computer file is used during processing.
  • Programs include routines for checking internal file header labels before processing.
  • The application protects against concurrent file updates.

  1. The areas from the FISCAM selected for inclusion in this report have been paraphrased.