TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Feds Just Can't Hack It

Feds Just Can't Hack It

Daily News Editorial (
Sat, 26 Aug 2006 14:26:23 -0500

By all indications, our nation's most sensitive data and computer
systems have woefully poor protection against hackers, thieves and
terrorists. Scandal could turn into national tragedy if the Department
of Homeland Security doesn't get its act together pronto. It has been
more than a year since Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff
promised to name an assistant secretary devoted to cyberspace security
but the job remains unfilled. There are few takers for the job -- in
fact, three cybersecurity officials resigned -- because the White
House decided to put the chief of information security in a
low-ranking slot, without daily access to Chertoff.

This bureaucratic foolishness and paralysis comes more than three
years after the White House published a 60-page National Strategy to
Secure Cyberspace, which noted that "in the past few years, threats in
cyberspace have risen dramatically ... We must act to reduce our
vulnerabilities to these threats before they can be exploited."

Computers and the Internet are used to control and coordinate
airports, radio stations, electric utilities and radio communications
between first responders. Imagine how much worse the panic and death
toll on 9/11 might have been if New York were left without electric
power, without access to computers and without working phones, radio,
television or traffic lights.

A cyberattack could plunge all or part of the nation into chaos.

Still, federal bureaucrats have their heads stuck in the sand. In May,
red-faced officials at the Veterans Affairs Department acknowledged that
sensitive personal information on more than 26 million veterans --
including names, addresses and Social Security numbers -- had gone
missing. The data wasn't lifted by hackers: it was stored, uncoded, on a
computer taken home by a government official whose last security
background check took place 32 years ago.

It gets worse.

The head of the VA acknowledged he wasn't even informed of the data
theft until two weeks after the fact. And while the computer
eventually turned up with no harm done, Pedro Cadenas, the agency's
cybersecurity chief, quit -- telling Government Executive magazine that
"the department has no interest in doing the right thing," and that
he'd only met the Veterans Affairs secretary once, at a social event.

The laxity of the Veterans Affairs Department isn't an isolated case;
several federal departments - including Defense and Homeland Security
- have received a grade of F for the past few years on a Computer
Security Report Card issued by Congress. The government's overall
grade is D-plus.

Every day, according to a recent report in The Washington Post,
hackers make more than 2,000 attempts to crack the Department of
Agriculture's computers -- and apparently succeeded a few weeks ago,
leading the agency to announce that personal data on more than 26,000
contractors and active and retired employees may have been stolen.

Last year, an unknown intruder got into a computer at the National
Nuclear Security Administration, a division of the Department of Energy
that monitors the safety and reliability of military nuclear weapons.
Information on more than 1,500 agency workers and outside contractors
was stolen. Incredibly, the security breach wasn't reported to senior
officials; it was buried with more than 830 other incidents the agency
experienced last year. Hiding such breaches is common, according to
government auditors.

Years before the 9/11 terrorist attack and the destruction of New
Orleans, federal officials were warned about grave danger, and did too
little to prepare for it.

Chertoff has got to do better -- before it gets worse.

Originally published on July 25, 2006

All contents copyright 2006 Daily News, L.P.

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