Outsourcing opens security risks
- By Heather Harreld
- Jan 04, 1998
The federal government's push to outsource its operations, including information technology programs, has created new opportunities for unauthorized access to private and sensitive information stored in government databases.
The threat comes from federal employees and, increasingly, workers employed by contractors that have won contracts to operate previously government-run programs that include wide-ranging data from combat readiness to Scud missile research.
Just how serious a security-threat outsourcing can be was highlighted last month, when Zhangyi Liu, a Chinese national and a computer programmer working on a large Air Force computer contract, appeared in court to face up to two years in prison for breaking into a database that detailed combat readiness. Liu posted on the Internet passwords to the database, which contained unclassified information on aircraft, communications and missiles. Liu worked for Litton/PRC Inc., the contractor the Air Force hired to work on the computer system.
As Congress and the Clinton administration put agencies under more pressure to downsize, outsourcing will remain attractive and similar incidents could occur, said Barry Collin, senior research fellow at the Stanford, Calif.-based Institute for Security and Intelligence.
"Historically, we used to have teams of government programmers pounding out Ada behemoths that were cross-checked by multiple personnel for accuracy and quality," Collin said. "Today, we are seeing outside vendors, using overseas code shops and utilizing object libraries whose origin is often unknown. In other words, we don't know who is producing the code, where they are producing it, how it works internally and what other buried treasures might be lurking."
The Air Force is not the only service that may have had sensitive information compromised. Earlier this year, two scientists at the Army's High Performance Computing Directorate at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland were accused by their former boss of using an Army supercomputer to research for Iraq ways to extend the strike capabilities of Scud missiles. The FBI is investigating these allegations.
The government frequently relies on background checks to weed out potential employees who present a security threat. But the practice does not always work. In 1995 when TRW Inc. won the Treasury Communications System (TCS) contract, the company dismissed several employees who had worked for Computer Sciences Corp. on the predecessor system because they were security threats, according to a source close to the TCS contract.
Although background checks conducted from 1985 to 1995 had indicated the employees posed a security threat when they worked for CSC, they were allowed to continue working. It has not been determined if any information was compromised.
Federal officials also need to become more educated about the potential for insider abuse instead of blindly trusting users who pass background checks, said Mark Fabro, a network security specialist with Secure Computing Inc. Fabro, who specializes in trusted networks of military systems, said foreign governments that install rogue agents to cull information from U.S. data systems will go to great lengths to ensure the agents' background checks will be clear.
"Communications and networks inside the U.S. government have already been established," Fabro said. "It is too late now to go back and start over. What we are seeing in the government right now is not enough proactive measures taken so the malicious actions will be stunted. There is an element of education that is not reaching the proper levels of government."
Risks Are Too Great
But some agencies believe the security risks of outsourcing are too great. The Justice Department, for example, will not outsource its data centers because of security and operational concerns, said Mark Boster, deputy assistant attorney general for information resources management. Boster said any interruption of data center operations, such as a denial-of-service attack (one of the most common network-disabling computer attacks) would have critical consequences for the department.
"The kinds of things that we process -- we want them to be very tightly controlled," he said. Other agencies are embracing outsourcing. Martin Ferris, former assistant director for systems security at the Treasury Department, said agencies must forge close relationships with contractors to ensure that security requirements maintain a high priority within outsourced projects.
Ferris, who has launched his own consulting practice on an electronic-checking project that involves Treasury's Financial Management Service (FMS), said many Treasury bureaus require senior management employed by contractors, such as banks handling federal money, to sign a written agreement with security policies and procedures outlined.
"When you're outsourcing, those people really have a lot of critical access," Ferris said. "We're really at their mercy. It really is a question of the unpleasant necessary parts of security management to have policies, to have standards and to have oversight."
After the recent incident with the foreign computer programmer, the Air Force added a new clause into the contract of Andersen Consulting, the prime contractor that replaced Litton/PRC to work on the system, program manager Millie Pitman said. Now foreign nationals are forbidden to work on the contract without first obtaining a special export license from the State Department.
The Air Force had installed two system security packages and an audit log that detected the illegal access, she said. However, the Air Force was scheduled before the incident -- and has since installed -- an upgrade to the security package that Pitman said will make it "almost impossible" for even an internal employee to exceed access privileges.
In what is perhaps one of the largest outsourcing initiatives, the General Services Administration's massive Seat Management program will turn the procurement and management of computer equipment, software and services over to industry vendors. Wanda Smith, director of GSA's Information Technology Integration Center's Seat Management Division, said GSA officials included only general security requirements in the program. Specific security needs will be addressed at the task order level, she said.
She said officials expect to encounter a wide range of security needs from agencies using the program. Some agencies "don't care at all about security," while others have very stringent requirements, Smith said.
"We have contractors all over this town handling top-secret work," Smith said. "I don't think it's a big issue. I think it's something that we're going to have to address...on a client-by-client basis."
NASA officials have paid close attention to security when formulating the requirements for their potentially multibillion outsourcing requirement for desktop computing, said Skip Kemerer, head of the multi-services/ADP procurement branch at Goddard Space Flight Center. However, he noted that any person with unscrupulous motives who has access to sensitive information has the potential to cause damage.
"Security is tied to the person," Kemerer said. "If I had access to government secrets and wanted to sell them, no one could stop me from doing that. It still comes down to the individual."