Information-sharing platform hacked

Homeland Security Information Network suffers intrusions

The Homeland Security Department’s platform for sharing sensitive but unclassified data with state and local authorities was hacked recently, a DHS official has confirmed.

The intrusion into the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN) was confirmed to Federal Computer Week by Harry McDavid, the chief information officer for DHS’ Office of Operations Coordination and Planning. McDavid said the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team reported an intrusion into the system in late March. The initial hack was brief and limited, and it was followed by a more extensive hack in early April, McDavid said.

The hacker or hackers gained access to the data by getting into the HSIN account of a federal employee or contractor, McDavid said. The bulk of the data obtained was federal, but some state information was also accessed, he added, and the organizations that owned the data and Congress were notified of the intrusion.

The files that were accessed contained administrative data such as telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of state and federal employees. However, an investigation into the incidents has found that no Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers or financial data were obtained, McDavid said.

Because HSIN is a sensitive but unclassified network “no information can be posted on HSIN that would cause anything more than minor damage to the homeland security mission,” he said, adding that none of the accessed files dealt with the operations of either federal or state agencies that use HSIN.

McDavid said he did not know of other successful hacks into the platform. He called the tactics used to gain access to the user account “very sophisticated.” However, he said the amount of data accessed was relatively minor and that officials have been able to map exactly what files were accessed.

“We immediately put in place a package of mitigation actions,” he said. “One of those actions was to install two-factor identification on certain accounts that would preclude this identical type of intrusion from occurring again.”

Ongoing work to upgrade HSIN has allowed DHS to quickly deploy new security measures to prevent similar intrusions from occurring, McDavid said. DHS awarded a contract worth as much as $62 million in May 2008 to upgrade HSIN to the HSIN Next Gen platform. Officials say HSIN Next Gen will better meet users’ needs and improve security.

McDavid said DHS’ investigation into the incident found that no latent malicious code or applications were left behind. In addition, he said that although an authorized account was used to gain access to the system, no HSIN users had been found to be at fault and officials are working on a report about the hack for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. The report is expected to be completed this summer, he said.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Fri, May 29, 2009 Andrew M. Colarik

When DHS first proposed the web-based sharing plan they put out a request for comments. In that response, I let them know that such web-based sharing systems can never truly be secured. That the focus of securing any system should be centered around the data and how it can be used in the event of a breach. They went ahead anyways...

Wed, May 20, 2009

So is DHS itself filing a report? It seems we need GAO to investigate fraud, waste, and abuse. Besides, isn't it funny and scary that DHS is trying to "standardize" on the same vulnerable platform that has been compromised repeatedly? Duh. Who are making these decisions anyway and how do they come to these conclusions? Are the decisions made based on facts or airline magazines? Why do we entrust our homeland safety on these incompetent self-made experts?

Mon, May 18, 2009

Perhaps something a tad more secure than two-factor authentication might be called for here. There are many, many options for this, including dynamic security questions, third-party authenticator portals, and the list goes on. What *is* the HSIN mission? The DHS Intelligence & Analysis directorate has splintered off and started their own SLIC channel for information sharing, and FEMA has long-standing protocols for comms through the ICS. US VISIT and ICE programs also communicate between states and feds when it comes to anti-terror and immigration issues, CBP has their own ties, and well...the list goes on. What *is* the HSIN mission?

Thu, May 14, 2009

Gads, you make this HACK seem so innocent. HSIN Next Gen is nothing more than another $62M of tax payers money on top of the original $90M of tax payers money (MY MONEY)for something that obviously does not work for a HUGE $150M. Is this the same system that was in the media recently for government spending so much and getting so little in return, which doesn't work, that Congress said stop spending on? Give me back my money please!!!

Thu, May 14, 2009 TK

TFA should be deployed on every network in the US Govt. Don't these people know that this is the only way to prevent unauthorized access? Slow to action will cause a lot more pain for us in the future.

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