Interior loses Internet service following court mandate

Interior loses Internet service following court mandate

Most Interior Department agencies began their first full week without Internet service today, as they complied with the Dec. 5 order of U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth to disconnect their systems from the Internet. The judge’s order stemmed from longstanding litigation over mismanaged American Indian trust funds and the vulnerability of the trust fund databases to hacking via the Internet.

Over the weekend, Judge Lamberth let the department reconnect Internet service to the National Fire Information Center and the Geological Survey following an emergency hearing on Saturday.

USGS issues disaster warnings for earthquakes, landslides, floods and the like over the Internet. The fire center uses the Internet to help run a fire protection system and coordinate firefighting agencies.

Interior IT managers’ offices contacted today reported that all members of their staffs were in meetings. The department’s public affairs staff requested inquiries in writing, to which they did not respond.

The House Resources Committee, which oversees the department, issued the following statement: "Interior staff are working 24-7 to review each of their agencies' Web sites, make sure all needed firewalls are in place, and get everything up and running again.

“We're in touch with them and getting regular updates on their progress,” the committee said through a spokeswoman. “They are working as fast as they can. In the meantime, the popularity of the fax machine has soared to new heights over there.”

The committee plans to hold a hearing Feb. 6 on the troubled trust fund. “A half-dozen administrations have tackled this problem with varying degrees of success,” the committee said.

Judge Lamberth’s decision came after he unsealed a report by court-appointed special master Alan L. Balaran in the Indian trust fund litigation. The report detailed years of failure by Interior to secure the trust fund data.

According to the special master, at least 30 reports from organizations such as Interior’s inspector general, the General Accounting Office, congressional panels and private consultants have found serious security problems with the trust fund databases as well as other system malfunctions and mismanagement.

Among the most serious flaws in the system are the “trivial” passwords used to protect the data and the lack of firewalls to shield the system from hacking via the Internet, according to consultants’ analyses of the databases cited in the report.

Balaran hired Predictive Systems Inc. of New York to test the security of the trust fund databases. The consultants succeeded in penetrating the system on their first attempt, according to the report.

On their second try, the Predictive Systems specialists made a point to use only free tools and utilities available on the Internet. They succeeded in changing an existing trust account, the report said.

The report cited statements by former BIA CIO Dominic Nessi that the system had “no security” and “can be breached by a high school kid.”

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