Agencies batten down

A growing wave of hacker attacks on federal World Wide Web sites, including an attack that resulted in the FBI shutting down its site for more than a week, has raised agencies' awareness of their vulnerabilities and spurred efforts to increase their online security.

As a result, agencies recently have upgraded their security products, set new security policies and changed systems' architectures to keep one step ahead of hackers.

But federal IT and security experts recognize that no system connected to the Web can be completely secure. The threat of hackers wanting to make political statements or cause a nuisance by taking government Web sites down will require constant attention, but that should not sway agencies from moving more public services online, sources say.

"Just as dealing with terrorists, you don't let [hackers] stop you from doing what you believe is in your best interests," said Roger Baker, chief information officer at the Commerce Department. "By putting yourself on the Internet, you have to be much more vigilant about your security."

In the past two weeks, a group attacked the FBI's site in retaliation for the FBI arresting hackers who have broken into federal systems. Some of the hackers who have broken into the sites have identified themselves as part of a group calling itself F0rpaxe. The FBI took its site down for more than a week to make security improvements, and the site finally went live again on Friday.

The group also broke into the Web sites run by the Senate, the Interior Department and a federal supercomputer laboratory in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Also last month, several cyberattacks successfully took down Web sites at the Defense Department, the White House and other agencies, following the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Many other agency sites also were attacked, with four other successful hacks gaining international attention in the last two weeks when the victimized agencies had to take their sites down for at least a day to repair the damage.

In response to increased attacks on DOD systems, the Defense Technical Information Center, which oversees more than 90 Defense-related Web sites, has taken several steps to upgrade its security.

Until recently, DTIC maintained those sites through an "all-in-one" server. But in an attempt to foil hackers, "we're stripping these things apart," said Carlynn Thompson, director for research, development and acquisition information support at DTIC. The agency also has installed more servers, creating new layers that hackers must go through to get to the actual content of the sites.

The Department of Health and Human Services last week instructed managers and employees to "change passwords, put in firewalls, do intrusion detection, go over access control and authorizations," said HHS deputy CIO Kerry Weems.

At the Energy Department, IT officials have begun to use more commercial security solutions, including a more robust firewall and patches from software vendors, said Suzanne Nawrot, Webmaster at DOE. The department also split the management and monitoring of its Web servers from the policy and content group to a technical group at another facility.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency also has taken steps to bolster its security, but the agency did not want to disclose any of its activity. "The way the hackers operate, the more we talk about what we're doing, the more chance there is we're going to get hit," said spokesman Mark Wolffson.

But federal IT and security experts are realistic about how successful these devices and plans will be."It's never a question of if your site is going to be hacked, it's when," Nawrot said. "You can put up patches and security, but it's just a matter of time before a smarter, younger kid finds a way in."

Daniel Kuehl, director of the information strategies concentration program at the National Defense University, agreed that no amount of security will wall off a Web site completely. "As with every other age and the technologies that are developed, there are vulnerabilities you have to deal with," he said. "What you can do is [to] mitigate, to the best amount possible, the damage that can come from it."

The Federal Computer Incident Response Capability at the General Services Administration serves as a security resource for agencies, providing a cookbook of available security practices and patches. Agencies that use FedCIRC's resources will not be totally secure, but they will find themselves better prepared, said one agency Web manager, who requested anonymity because of security concerns.

"If you take all the steps that you know to fix known vulnerabilities, you will be much better off," he said. "But people need to follow the steps that they know they need to follow" - for example, using readily available software patches from vendors and changing passwords often.

But agencies cannot make changes if they do not have the funding, as one of the DOE labs discovered last week. A hacker penetrated a Web site maintained for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by the National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, Idaho Falls, Idaho. The site was in the public domain, unprotected by the lab's firewall, though access to it was restricted to registered users.

The hacker was able to penetrate the site because the lab did not have a patch from the application vendor, said Al Lewis, director of information systems with Lockheed Martin Idaho Technologies Co., the contractor that runs the lab. The NRC group sponsoring the site had not provided enough money for system administration, he said. The patch has been added since.

The lab is reviewing whether it has allocated enough money for security for its other public Web pages and is requiring other groups using the lab's site to check the amount of funding they provide "to make sure we have the levels of security that don't compromise the integrity of the lab," Lewis said.

Other agencies in the past year have said they do not have the funding to adequately protect their systems, but some say they have to find the funding.

"The cost of a break-in is much lower than the cost of protection," said a federal security expert working for an agency. "We live in a constant fear of having downtime or having services unavailable."

The fear has escalated lately because to create a "digital government," Congress has pushed agencies to move their services to the Internet with legislation such as the Government Paperwork Elimination Act, which requires by October 2003 all agencies to give the public the option of interacting with the government electronically whenever possible.

But relying on a Web site open to the public automatically opens the agencies to attack.

"It's a balance of do I, by making these systems more accessible to John and Jane Q. Public, also make them vulnerable to anyone that wants to attack them?" Kuehl said. "We are now in an environment where you have to live with that...and the decision is how well you are going to protect those systems."

---Elana Varon contributed to this article.


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