FAA systems remain at risk, GAO warns Congress

FAA systems remain at risk, GAO warns Congress<@VM>Systems are vulnerable to attack throughout Transportation, IG says

Testimony reveals agency fails to make timely background checks on systems contractors and employees

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

The Federal Aviation Administration's security catch-22 would make even Joseph Heller shake his head.

The agency, tasked with securing systems critical to the nation's air safety, is attempting to measure vulnerability of its air traffic control systems and cannot move to protect them until that work is completed, recent testimony before a House committee revealed.

But FAA failed to perform background checks on most of the workers performing penetration testing on its systems, officials testified.

Worrisome computer security problems could plague FAA for years unless the agency performs background checks on everyone who has had access to its systems, said both a General Accounting Office official and the Transportation Department's inspector general during a hearing last month of the House Science Committee.

FAA's Jane Garvey says the agency is working to plug its security holes.

FAA administrator Jane F. Garvey said the agency has taken steps to close its security holes, but the auditors said they suspect that will be a long time coming. Even if penetration testing proves the systems are secure, the agency's poor personnel security measures would still compromise the systems, they said.

FAA needs to upgrade most of the 1,975 background checks it has completed, said Kenneth M. Mead, the Transportation IG.

Worse yet, FAA has compounded its security woes during its attempts to migrate from custom systems to off-the-shelf software running in an open environment, said Joel Willemssen, director of GAO's Accounting and Information Management Division.

Way behind

Eighty percent of Transportation's $2.7 billion information technology budget for fiscal 2000 is earmarked for FAA, Mead said.

FAA appears to perform appropriate background searches for federal employees, but many reinvestigations for top-secret clearance are past due, some by as much as five years, Willemssen said. Of 21 contractor employees surveyed, only two had undergone sufficient background checks, he found.

FAA recently began attempting to perform background checks on thousands of contract workers.

Garvey said FAA has put the onus on contractors to provide the necessary paperwork for the appropriate background checks by FAA's Office of Civil Aviation Security.

What risk assessment found

' User IDs and passwords are not always required and, in some cases, group user IDs and passwords are allowed.

' Users are not always authenticated when they gain access through an external link.

' Some software contains known exploitable bugs, and tracking publicized vulnerabilities is inadequate.

' System chiefs are not always aware of unauthorized hardware connections and software uploads.

' Virus control tools and procedures are not consistently applied.

' Firewalls do not always restrict remote users from executing some programs.

' Some system and user activities are insufficiently monitored.

Some of the unchecked employees are working to ensure the security of FAA's most important systems, such as penetration testing, Willemssen said. Security work cannot feasibly stop while more than 1,300 background checks are performed, he said.

The only way to ensure that data has not been compromised is to perform background checks on anyone who has worked on systems containing sensitive data'even those no longer in the employ of FAA or its contractors, the two auditors said.

Willemssen also said that, in the past, FAA has misrepresented its security checks.

For example, GAO last year criticized the agency for failing to perform background checks on contract workers, including foreign nationals, who were performing year 2000 readiness work.

The agency responded that it had done security reviews on contractor personnel working on critical systems, he said.

'FAA was unable to provide evidence that thorough security reviews were performed and simply noted that the risk of potential system compromise was low based on background checks performed,' Willemssen testified. 'However, FAA security officials reported that only name checks had been performed by the CIA for foreign national employees.'

FAA said it legally could no longer do background checks on individuals that it no longer employs, but officials agreed to look into possible systems exposure, he said.

Garvey said the agency has created a computer incident response capability program, retrained 40,000 employees about security and implemented 12 network intrusion detection devices to monitor traffic and identify cyberthreats.

Even so, Willemssen said, FAA isn't moving fast enough to correct identified problems.By Tony Lee Orr

The systems security problems that the General Accounting Office found at the Federal Aviation Administration plague the Transportation Department as a whole.

The department suffers from poor personnel security, network security and Web security, DOT inspector general Kenneth M. Mead told the House Science Committee late last month.

Mead cited a recent audit of Transportation's financial system and 13 networks throughout the department. The IG audit noted the lack of background checks on contractor personnel, including foreign nationals.

The findings mirrored a recent GAO report that found FAA routinely failed to conduct checks into the personal lives of those doing work on its most sensitive systems. As at FAA, many Transportation contractors, working without background checks, have been put in charge of the department's network security, Mead said.

There are other security problems, too, he said.

Improper use of firewalls lets users both inside and outside the department access applications, Mead said, adding that such access should be restricted to approved users.

By logging on as Internet users, IG officials gained access to roughly 270 systems linked to internal department networks. The IG's office also found 13 Web sites intended for public access that were served by the internal network, making intrusions by Internet users easy, Mead said.

Serious problems

The IG office reviewed 119 of Transportation's 240 Web servers and found 111 security problems, some of which the office rated as creating high risk.

In response to the IG findings, Transportation systems officials have acted to strengthen security controls over the DOT's Web servers and firewalls, Mead said.

But the possibility of tampering by insiders remains a problem, he said.

Roughly 900 DOT computers are vulnerable to inside attack by employees and contractors because they can be accessed via a Web browser, he said. The department has since disabled unneeded network services on those systems.

The IG's office also found nearly 600 contract personnel who no longer work for the department still had access to Transportation's systems.

Several employees who used stolen passwords to embezzle funds have been prosecuted following IG investigations, he said. One employee skimmed $600,000 before being caught.

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