Appeals court shelves shutdown of Interior computers

An appellate court has postponed a federal judge’s order to disconnect all Interior Department information technology systems that access Indian trust fund data. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth said he ordered the shutdown because the systems are vulnerable to hacker attacks.

Interior officials then requested an administrative stay Oct. 21 to temporarily suspend the shutdown, pending appeal.

Lamberth originally granted American Indian plaintiffs a motion for a preliminary injunction to shut down any computers, networks, handheld computers and voice-over-IP equipment that access trust fund data. The injunction, which he issued Oct. 20, prohibits Interior employees, contractors, tribes and other third parties from using those systems.

It is not known when or if a shutdown will occur.

"When the court takes it up, they'll let us know what our status is," Interior spokesman John Wright said today.

Depending on interpretations of the order, Interior could be forced to disconnect 5 percent to 10 percent of its computers, he said.

Although this would not harm the general public, "it would cause significant harm to Indian [communities], given that we process a lot of data by way of computers," Wright added.

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. Indian plaintiffs have accused Interior officials of failing to properly protect data.

The plaintiffs are expected to contest the delay.

Bill McAllister, their spokesman, said the brief will state that Judge Lamberth scrupulously followed the instructions of the court.

"He found the evidence overwhelming that the conditions were not safe in their computer systems," McAllister said. “This is another attempt by the Justice and Interior departments to evade [their] responsibilities to” American Indians.

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 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.

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