Plug-and-play network protection

One day in May, Jim Burger got a frantic call from a major customer, a large aerospace contractor that worked for the Defense Department.

The company was facing a security audit of its college-campus-sized, multibuilding fiber-optic network. DOD required that the company visually inspect the cables on its network, which it was having trouble doing because of staffing shortages.

It wouldn't pass the audit unless Burger, operations manager for Stanley Convergent Security Solutions, could find an answer to the problem quickly. 'They called us with an emergency with less than a week to solve the problem,' he said.

After a couple of days of research, Burger contacted Network Integrity Systems, which has an appliance called the Interceptor, a new type of alarmed carrier system that doesn't rely on an extra optical fiber to sense vibrations. Instead, the system monitors the lit or dark fibers in a network's fiber cables to detect motion of the cables themselves, not vibration in the conduit.

'The next week, we did the installation,' Burger said.

Any network carrying sensitive or classified government information must be protected from breaches by one of three methods: encryption, hardening or intrusion alarms.

'Encryption is expensive,' said Gary Young, a Gartner Group network security analyst. 'The devices are expensive to deploy, they require people, keys, etc.'

Because encryption is impractical, government organizations typically use hardening, Young said. But that is a big job, starting with a backhoe to dig a 6-foot-deep trench between buildings. Metal conduits containing the cables, each of which contains several bundles of optical fibers, are placed in the trench. Three feet of concrete must surround the trench. Inside, installations also require metal conduits, and all seams must be welded or sealed with epoxy. Junction boxes must be locked, and conduits can't be on outside walls.

All hardened conduits must also be visually inspected, but that 'never gets done because of the manpower shortage,' said Joe Giovannini, chief executive officer and co-founder of Network Integrity Systems.

The third method, intrusion alarms, also has its shortcomings. The alarm systems use an extra, or extrinsic, optical fiber along with the data-carrying fiber pairs to sense vibrations that would result from physical efforts to breach a network, such as sawing into a conduit. However, extrinsic optical fibers are so sensitive to vibrations that they routinely send alarms for events such as elevators moving up and down and people walking through hallways. Eventually, alarm sensitivity gets reduced so far that it's essentially turned off.

The Interceptor can work with existing networks and new installations.

'Take a water spigot on the side of a house,' Giovannini said. 'You have a garden hose from there to a sprinkler. You can watch the water from the sprinkler create the same pattern continuously. If you pick up or bend the hose, that changes the pattern. The same thing happens to light traveling in a fiber.' Fiber creates continuous unique patterns, which the Interceptor measures, he said.

As with a garden hose and water, any motion of the cables in a conduit changes the patterns of light. The Interceptor detects abnormal changes and reports them through various alarms. The Interceptor never touches the data signal in any way, nor does it consume bandwidth, as encryption does.

About the Author

Bridget Mintz Testa is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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