NASA cyber program bears fruit

NASA has demonstrated that using a scanning and remediation program can turn the tide against hackers, according to a recent report.

The SANS Institute released its NASA case study to coincide with the Oct. 2 release of the top 20 security vulnerabilities in the Unix and Microsoft Corp. Windows environments.

In fact, the idea for the top 20 list came from NASA's efforts to tame the cyber beast, according to Alan Paller, research director at the institute. Although the space agency outsources its more than 80,000 desktop computers, which are spread among several facilities, it maintains responsibility for their security.

In 1999, NASA identified the 50 most serious flaws plaguing its computers in response to an increasing number of attacks. Then using available funds, the agency bought and deployed a standard suite of scanning tools agencywide. Beginning in fiscal 2000, all network-connected computers were tested for the top 50 flaws and system owners were challenged to fix any problems.

"We had to market this within NASA," said Dave Nelson, a senior official in the chief information officer's office. "As the network has become more important, it's not possible for individual organizations to work in isolation."

To bring the entire agency on board, then-CIO Lee Holcomb set a target: Each center would decrease the ratio of vulnerabilities-to-computers from 1-to-1 to 1-to-4. "It got into a spirit of competition," Nelson said.

That spirit was the key, because people were given the opportunity to succeed, Paller said. "They never used it as a 'gotcha.' They gave them at least a full quarter to fix" a problem.

NASA tracks progress quarterly and, in fiscal 2002, began updating the list just as regularly. In addition to scanning for security problems, the agency relies on intrusion detection and other measures.

"We've seen that this general approach works," Nelson said. "The cost is acceptable. Other agencies are picking it up."

NASA spends $2 million to $3 million a year on the program, or about $30 per computer annually.

"The need for large-scale contracting is nonexistent," Paller said. "This was less than 3 percent of their security budget, and all of us can find 3 percent."

The cost is almost entirely in labor, so looking ahead, NASA wants to move to better management tools and use the General Services Administration's patching service when it becomes available, Nelson said. The agency is also trying to incorporate artificial intelligence that better identifies intrusion patterns.

It has already reduced the number of system compromises and the ratio of vulnerabilities-to-computers to about 1-to-10, Nelson said. Now "we can jump on an emergency very quickly," he said.

Despite making progress, NASA must stay up-to-date on the latest vulnerabilities, according to Bill Wall, chief security engineer with Harris Corp.'s STAT network security group.

"In my mind [updating the list] bi-weekly is the best schedule," said Wall, who worked as chief of computer security at the agency's Ames Research Center in California for six years. "NASA's always a likely target."

Experts responded similarly to the top 20 list, calling it a good place for organizations to start as part of a larger cybersecurity strategy.

The institute announced the list with the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center, the Federal Computer Incident Response Center and the Critical Infrastructure Protection Board. The group plans to offer free weekly or monthly updates to the list.


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