Judge orders Interior IT system shutdown

A judge has ordered the Interior Department to disconnect all information technology systems that access Indian trust fund data because the systems are vulnerable to hacker attacks.

Today, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth granted American Indian plaintiffs a motion for a preliminary injunction to shut down all computers, networks, handheld computers and voice-over-IP equipment that access trust fund data. The injunction prohibits Interior employees, contractors, tribes and other third parties from using those systems.

Interior’s IT security has been the focus of a nine-year class-action lawsuit that criticizes the department’s oversight of Indian trust funds. Plaintiffs have accused Interior officials of failing to properly protect data.

Department officials took the Bureau of Land Management’s Web sites off-line for two months this spring after Interior’s inspector general issued a report warning that its IT systems are vulnerable to cyberattacks.

In 2001, Lamberth ordered Interior to disable Internet connections on all computers that employees – and hackers -- could use to access trust fund data. He ordered two subsequent shutdowns, although Internet access had returned to the department following a federal appeals court ruling that blocked the second order.

Most recently, lapses in Interior’s oversight allowed government-hired hackers to infiltrate the agency’s systems, according to a Sept. 6 memo from Earl Devaney, Interior’s IG.

Since November 2004, the IG has been independently testing the department’s network security.

Because of “vulnerabilities in several bureaus’ [IT] systems, [Interior] internal networks, as a whole, are vulnerable to unauthorized access,” Devaney wrote in his most recent assessment.

Interior’s lawyers and IT employees will soon determine the amount of equipment and networks that the new order affects.

“We are working with our IT personnel and attorneys to help interpret the judge’s order and to determine the actions that we need to take to comply,” Interior spokesman John Wright said. “The impact potentially involves approximately 6,000 computers that house individual Indian trust data and an undetermined number of other computers that may provide indirect access to IT systems that house individual Indian trust data.”

The shutdown’s start date has not been determined, he added.

Based on an initial review of the order, Interior officials said the shutdown will adversely impact Interior programs that benefit American Indians and other customers.

Wright said the order will undermine the agency’s ability to distribute royalty payments to Indian beneficiaries and the federal government.

The Indian plaintiffs in the case are expected to issue a formal statement later today.

The plaintiffs are generally satisfied with today’s outcome, said Bill McAllister, their spokesman.

“It seems to follow pretty much what we’ve requested in the hearing,” McAllister said. “It supported our contention that the computers were unsafe.”

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