Court cuts Interior's Internet links again

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has ordered the Interior Department to disconnect hundreds of additional systems from the Internet to protect American Indian trust data.

The department, which previously had disconnected 4 percent of its computer systems from the Internet, pulled an additional 1 percent in response to the latest court order, an Interior spokesman said. Spokesman Stephen King said estimates the department issued earlier today of the total number of systems disconnected were guesses. He confirmed that the department had disconnected hundreds of additional systems as a result of the order.

King declined to estimate the total number of systems the department has. Interior employs about 78,000 employees, but not all of them use computers.

The latest cutoff mandate came in a June 27 temporary restraining order issued by Judge Royce C. Lamberth. He presides over litigation now known as Cobell et al v. Norton et al, in which American Indian trust beneficiaries seek restitution of funds lost or stolen due to Interior mismanagement'possibly billions of dollars.

Lamberth first ordered Interior to sever its Internet connections in December 2001 because consultants retained by the court determined that the trust accounts were vulnerable to hacking.

The department progressively has been restoring Internet links since then as it has implemented security upgrades approved by court official Alan Balaran. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is the central repository of the trust records, has not met Balaran's security requirements yet and has remained offline.

In his June 27 order, Lamberth required Interior to disconnect from the Internet all systems that house or provide access to American Indian trust data. Interior will be allowed to reconnect the systems when Balaran 'has determined that all individual Indian trust data is properly secured.'

Lamberth later exempted systems 'for protection against fires and other threat[s] to life or property' from the order.

That addendum to Lamberth's order echoed a modification to his December 2001 order, which allowed Interior agencies involved in law enforcement, wildfire fighting and other public safety activities to retain their Internet connections. Interior operates law enforcement units in the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, among other agencies.

Lamberth's ruling to cut off Interior's Internet connections again came at the request of the plaintiffs in the case, who had sought a preliminary injunction to that effect to protect American Indian trust data.

Last month, Balaran and the Interior and Justice Departments clashed over the rules under which court consultants could verify the security of Interior's systems. (Click to link to GCN coverage)

Bill McAllister, a spokesman for Eloise Cobell, said the plaintiffs sought to have Interior's systems taken offline because "they wanted to make certain that the systems could be tested and the trust beneficiaries could be assured that their monies were safe."

McAllister added, "It is our assumption that once the test is conducted, the systems will pass, and the court will allow their reconnection."

The American Indian trust lawsuits have taken seven years so far. The court now is hearing arguments in a second trial, known as trial 1.5, on how to reform the trust, McAllister said.

King said Interior welcomes the testing because it will let the department determine if there are any remaining security flaws in the systems used to account for the trust funds and where they are.

Interior seeks to establish ground rules for security testing that will include advisories about when the security tests will take place, so that the department won't report the hacking attempts to federal cybersecurity authorities and the FBI, King said.

The National Park Service, Geological Survey, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Office of Surface Mining and the Bureau of Indian Affairs' schools all are online, King said.

BIA, the Solicitor's Office and the immediate office of secretary Gale Norton are among the agencies that remain offline, he said.

James Cason, associate deputy secretary of the Interior, 'tried earlier this week to meet with [Balaran] to discuss their problems over penetration testing,' King said. The spokesman added that according to Cason, Balaran's contractors are conducting testing that is 'above and beyond the original agreements' Interior and the court made in December 2001 concerning security procedures.

(Updated and revised 4:23 p.m. July 3, 2003)

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