WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Interior Department can keep its
computers connected to the Internet despite the fact that hackers
could manipulate royalty payments owed to American Indians for use of
their land, an appeals court ruled on Friday.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that a
lower court in March didn't give the Interior Department enough of a
chance to make its case before ordering the agency to pull its Web
sites and e-mail systems offline.
Though an expert had shown that Indian trust funds could easily be
tampered with by hackers, there was no evidence that anyone had
actually tampered with the accounts, a three-judge appeals court panel
Had the lower court considered evidence that the department had taken
steps to improve its computer security, "there would have been no
factual basis for disconnecting Interior's IT computer systems from
the Internet," Appeals Court Judge Judith Rogers wrote.
The appeals court has allowed Interior to stay online temporarily
while it considered the case.
Internet operations at the agency have been shut down three times
since 2001, when a court-appointed investigator found that hackers
could easily steal money from a system that allocates royalties to
300,000 Indians for use of their land.
The blackouts stem from a class-action lawsuit between the agency and
Indians who say that it lost track of billions of dollars in oil, gas
and mineral royalty payments.
A lawyer for the Indian plaintiffs said he would go back to the lower
court and ask for a full hearing to determine the security of the
Interior Department's computers.
Attorney Keith Harper said the appeals court ruling actually helped
his case because it found that the court has the authority to order
Interior's computers offline if need be. The Interior Department had
argued that the court did not have that power.
"We strongly believe that there are still extraordinary (computer)
security problems and they should be taken offline," Harper
said. "This opens the door to that type of review further."
In a prepared statement, the Interior Department said it was pleased
with the ruling and would continue to upgrade computer security.
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