Judge lets some Interior employees back online

After enduring an Internet and e-mail blackout for nearly two weeks, some Interior Department employees could regain access to the cyber world under an order issued Tuesday by a U.S. District Court judge in Washington. On Dec. 5., the court ordered Interior to disconnect nearly all of its computers from the Internet, saying the agency's inadequate information security system put information on Indian trust funds managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs at risk.

But on Tuesday, Judge Royce C. Lamberth acknowledged that his order was harming "innocent citizens" who depend on Interior's services, and said systems could be brought back online as long as they aren't connected to BIA financial information and they pass a security inspection. The court-imposed shutdown of Interior's systems was prompted by a report from court-appointed Special Master Alan Balaran, who hired a hacker to penetrate the Indian trust data to demonstrate its vulnerability. BIA oversees about 300,000 individual trust accounts and sends checks to Indian beneficiaries, who rely on the money to pay for basic necessities. The agency has been dogged for years by allegations it has mismanaged the system. Tuesday's order in the case of Cobell v. Norton will also allow Interior to reconnect systems that are linked to Indian trust data for specified periods of time to perform security tests and to conduct fund transactions and provide services. Interior groups that wish to reconnect to the Internet will have to seek approval from Balaran. Interior spokesman John Wright said last week he didn't know what standard would be used to judge the adequacy of Interior's security. Some organizations at Interior are beginning to feel the pinch of being offline for almost half a month. Beth Owen, spokeswoman for GovWorks, the fee-for-service acquisition house of Interior's Minerals Management Service, said the organization can't process payments without Web access. Owen doesn't know when GovWorks might be able to reconnect. Owen emphasized that while Interior employees are greatly inconvenienced by the shutdown, no one is second-guessing the need to secure the Indian trust fund. "Everyone is disappointed about the Internet [blackout], but no one wants to see those funds in jeopardy," she said.

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