Interior defends wireless plan

American Indian groups and the Interior Department's inspector general may fret about potential security holes as the department plans to acquire wireless service, but department officials say they shouldn't worry because they would only get voice services.

Lawyers representing a group of American Indians suing the Interior Department say wireless Internet service could grant unauthorized access to Indian trust fund account information. Interior plans to release a solicitation notice for departmentwide wireless service because it is for phones only, not Web-enabled devices, Interior spokesman Dan DuBray said.

"It doesn't affect the access to any of these networks," he said today.

Interior employees buy their own wireless phones, and the department reimburses them individually. Department officials want to have one contract that would place all Interior wireless phones under one carrier so the government can get better rates.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which already has a wireless phone service contract with a single provider, will not be part of the Interior solicitation.

Last week, plaintiffs suing Interior gave a federal judge an inspector general's report published in December on wireless management and security. Between October 2003 and April 2004, inspectors found that Interior networks sometimes intersected with other networks and broadcasted information to inappropriate areas and people. Based on the report, lawyers for the Indians argued that hackers could manipulate trust accounts held by 500,000 American Indians.

But Interior officials say the wireless IG report makes no mention of the words "Indian" or "trust" except when identifying the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "Therefore, the assertion that the report conveys imminent harm to the trust accounts is a misrepresentation of that report," DuBray said.

The IG’s report states that a recent Interior memo is silent on the department's plans for handling wireless technology in the future. But that memo is a security implementation guide and was available eight months before the IG’s report, which was published in final form without Interior comments, DuBray said.

"We would have concerns that the production of the report was subject to extended delay and lacked the opportunity for agency comments," he said today.

Interior conducts an aggressive program of routine penetration testing to identify and correct potential security issues, DuBray added.

"I insist that there is currently no demonstrable instance -- not one -- in which any individual not in the employ or under contract by the federal government has accessed these systems," he said. "The penetration attempts discussed in these hearings have been part of [IG] explorations specifically requested by the department."

Representatives for the Indian plaintiffs were unavailable for comment today.

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