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Feds leave doors open for hackers

December 22, 1999
Web posted at: 9:14 a.m. EST (1414 GMT)

by Diane Frank and Paula Shaki Trimble

Federal Computer Week

(IDG) -- After repeated break-ins through the same door, a shaken business owner likely would get the message and buy a sturdy lock, a big dog or a loud alarm.

But many agencies have failed to follow such common sense.

Repeated intrusions of federal World Wide Web sites reveal that agencies are not adequately training their IT sentries to take advantage of readily available systems security solutions.

Since October, hackers have penetrated more than 100 federal computer systems, primarily taking advantage of a well-known weakness in the Microsoft Corp. Windows NT operating system.

According to federal computer security experts, the attacks have been successful because federal systems administrators are failing to apply a software patch that has been available from Microsoft for more than a year.

The Federal Computer Incident Response Capability, an independent group within the General Services Administration, keeps agencies abreast of security flaws, threats and solutions. Whenever software vendors put out security patches, FedCIRC brings those to the attention of agencies, but FedCIRC cannot enforce the use of them.

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"We can tell [agencies] until we're blue in the face, but we can't put the patches on the systems for them," said Dave Jarrell, technical director for FedCIRC.

The jump in the number of hacks of federal Web sites has highlighted a common problem in agencies: the lack of personnel with the time and expertise to stay on top of the issues needed to secure an agency's computer connection to the world.

"Many system administrators are doing the job part time, or it was handed to them on top of other duties...and they are just not able to keep up with the changes," said Mary Ellen Condon, director of information management and security at the Justice Department, at a security conference in October.

While IT staff members are already overwhelmed, alerts continue to roll in and old problems are not going away. According to FedCIRC, nearly all of the recent Web site defacements have been accomplished by people penetrating holes for which patches are available. Such attacks include sites belonging to the Defense Information Systems Agency and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

This problem of unpatched weaknesses has been pointed out in reports and testimony from the General Accounting Office and reflected in bills such as the Government Information Security Act recently introduced in Congress. But it will not be solved until agencies take action, Jarrell said.

Information security training is available within government and from trusted sources in industry. But many agencies are not taking advantage of these opportunities because they believe they are adequately protected and educated, agency officials said.

"We do feel comfortable with the level of training Web site administrators are receiving," said Dan Tucciarone, executive officer at the Defense Contracts Audit Agency. "This is obviously a high-profile area, and we are committed to make sure our Web site administrators are well-trained and have all necessary resources to do their jobs."

DCAA's Web site is one of several .gov or .mil sites defaced recently by hackers trying to sway the government to increase Windows NT security. Most of the bugs that have been exploited by hackers are in Microsoft's Windows NT operating system, and the company has been trying to improve the way it delivers its alerts and patches to users.

In recent weeks, a notorious hacker known as YTcracker has penetrated several government and military Web sites, including those belonging to the Bureau of Land Management's National Training Center, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and the DCAA. YTcracker, a 17-year-old from Colorado Springs, Colo., said he routinely sends messages to government Web site administrators insisting that they address vulnerabilities and adopt Unix or other more secure systems, but the messages largely go ignored. During his recent round of Web site defacements, YTcracker said he "targeted the systems the government would look at and take seriously."

"I understand the government might not have the manpower or the funds to conduct full security audits of their systems," said YTcracker, who said he hopes someday to work for the government.

Some agencies are beginning to take steps to get a handle on the problem:

  • Justice has developed a prototype training program for all employees - from systems administrators to basic users - that will incorporate computer-based training and lab work, Condon said. The training will provide a common level of understanding so that everyone in an agency knows that when it comes to security, everyone has a responsibility, whether it is simply keeping a password secret or putting software patches on the network.
  • NASA is aware of FedCIRC's alerts and is addressing the problem of patches going unused, said David Nelson, deputy chief information officer at the agency. "NASA is taking very seriously the inappropriateness of having vulnerabilities that are well-known left on our systems," Nelson said. "We are taking steps - and not just telling people to fix it. But it is going to take a lot of time.... It is very hands-on, intensive work." Beyond this particular initiative, NASA has developed a training program that is going into full swing.
  • The National Institutes of Health relies on its own Internet Response Team to react almost immediately when there is a problem, said Jaren Doherty, security manager for NIH.

A member of that team is available 24 hours a day, he said.

In its own security training and awareness program, NIH devotes a lot of time to demonstrations of security problems, including showing administrators and users just how easy it is to hack into their systems.

"Awareness of the issues is just as big a problem as training the people and giving them the skills," Doherty said. "The Internet changes so quickly. Making them aware of problems is a big priority."

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