Government Data Under Siege

July 1996


Government Data Under Siege

By Lisa Corbin

The confidentiality, integrity, reliability and availability of government information continues to be threatened by amateur hackers, professional eavesdroppers, power outages, natural disasters and human error. Vicious computer viruses are altering and deleting data; spies are entering Internet backdoors and snooping through files; and employees are using stolen passwords to obtain sensitive information that is being sold to outside parties.

The proliferation of data-security threats has been brought on, ironically, by advances in the Information Age. Agencies have been moving steadily from centralized mainframe-processing environments to distributed architectures involving open operating systems, client-server networks and commercial, off-the-shelf software. That migration has increased the vulnerability of information systems because more federal employees now have access to data. And since users on those systems now mingle with the Internet and external trading partners via electronic data interchange (EDI), more outsiders have access to those systems too.

Although no one knows exactly how often security breaches occur, the federally funded Computer Emergency Response Team at Carnegie Mellon University estimates that government computer systems are illegally accessed several hundred thousand times each year. Some of the most recent attacks have been at high-security installations, such as Air Force bases, Energy Department labs and NASA research facilities. Many break-ins are not even reported because organizations don't want to publicize their vulnerability.

Agencies have been slow to defend against security threats because precautions are viewed as annoying. Simple tasks such as copying or sharing files, viewing printer queues or switching directories can turn complicated or may be prohibited altogether on secured systems. The Pentagon's new Defense Message System, for instance, is meeting resistance from users who do not want to wait up to 30 seconds to open each e-mail message. DoD says the lengthy log-on is necessary in order to decrypt messages and check the validity of digital signatures and IDs. But many argue that such cumbersome procedures defeat the speed benefits of e-mail.

Safeguards also are viewed as being too expensive for agencies working on bare-bones budgets. The Defense Department tried to cut costs by centralizing security products and services under one contract. But support for the $1.9 billion Information Security Technical Services contract has been so weak that the Defense Information Systems Agency is expected to stop processing task orders now that the contract's legal minimum guarantee of $6 million has been met.

Instead of attempting to wipe out every vulnerability, some agencies are choosing to reduce risks to reasonable levels. But even that goal is difficult for organizations lacking trained staffs to identify vulnerable areas and implement safeguards. The Office of Management and Budget recently mandated that agencies provide security training to all new employees before giving them access to government systems. OMB is also requiring agencies to establish computer emergency response teams to deal with break-ins and viruses.

The General Services Administration's Security Infrastructure Program Management Office, meanwhile, is helping agencies implement data-security solutions. The office's goal is to encourage agencies to use a standard approach to solving security problems in order to avoid duplication of systems. It is seeking interoperability among encryption devices and is helping to sort out other security obstacles blocking government-wide implementation of e-mail and EDI.

Such efforts will help move security concerns to the forefront and will help clear the way for full-scale electronic commerce within the government. The following pages detail the latest approaches to safeguarding federal data, along with some of the newest products designed to help make computer security an integral part of day-to-day operations.

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