Justice bans Net

Fearing a potentially disastrous cyberbreach of its systems, the Justice Department has
taken a hard-core stance on applets: It has banned them.

Responding to security concerns, the department is blocking script code such as Java,
JavaScript and ActiveX from download via the Internet or e-mail messages because of the
potential risks such code poses, said Mark A. Boster, assistant attorney general for IRM
and the department’s deputy chief information officer.

“We’re real concerned,” said Boster, who will step down from his post
this month (see story, Page 50).

Using the script languages, a malicious programmer could embed an applet in an e-mail
or a Web site that could do something such as copy a hard drive and transmit the
information outside the department, he said. The danger is that once an applet is
downloaded and running, it could improperly access or alter data on a host computer or
network, Boster said.

A Danish webmaster last year informed Microsoft Corp. of a security hole in the
Internet Explorer browser that could let a Web site operator penetrate a PC’s hard
drive under certain circumstances.

Also last year, the government-sponsored Computer Emergency Response Team posted an
advisory about a security gap that would let a hacker invade JavaScript to monitor a
Web-brow-sing session remotely. CERT’s advice: Turn JavaScript off on the browser.

Justice is working with both Microsoft and Netscape Communications Corp. to develop a
browser that could be used across the department and would block script.“We have a
single point of presence to the Internet,” he said. “We’re going to
implement a standard browser, and the only browsers that work will have certain security
and identity. Then we can lock down certain functions,” such as applets.

Justice is not alone in its concern or its get-tough response, said Treasury Department
CIO James Flyzik, co-chairman of the CIO Council. “Some agencies are allowing access,
some are not,” he said.

One possible solution could be digital certificates, said Richard Guida, chairman of
the Government Information Technology Services Board’s Public Key Infrastructure
Steering Committee.

Under this method, an agency would set up a firewall and require that all senders of
applets have a digital certificate that the firewall recognizes, he said.

This method still requires some development work. The firewall would need to be
programmed with digital certificates from trusted parties, Guida said. And even so, it is
possible that a person could somehow introduce malicious script into an e-mail or onto a
Web site. But if that were to occur, it would be possible to trace the script back using
the digital certificate, he said.

“Clearly, with any type of Internet access, ActiveX and JavaScript do pose some
interesting security challenges,” Flyzik said. “We need to continue to recognize
those security challenges and find the security process and procedures that allow us to
implement these kinds of technologies in a way that we can have the proper security in
place as well.”

Boster, chairman of the CIO Council’s Security Committee, said Justice is working
with vendors so that organizations using scripts can embed a digital certificate that
could then be recognized by the department.

“We recognize the reality of blocking Java,” Boster said. “We are
actively pushing for a solution that will allow us to do the things that other
organizations are doing while being able to contain what we think could be a potentially
dangerous threat.”

Treasury has firewalls both departmentwide and within its components, Flyzik said.
There are also policies and procedures about using applets and script languages.

But he said more needs to be done. “In the long run, I think it’s clear that
Java and JavaScript are going to be key components of any agency—government or
private sector,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine JavaScript not being part
of your strategic applications, so we’re going to need to find a way to step up to
the security challenge to allow these capabilities and address the concerns.”


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