NASA sold computers without properly scrubbing them, IG says

Audit finds four NASA centers have been improperly sanitizing old machines

NASA is having some security problems in selling off excess hardware related to the retirement of the shuttle program. A NASA inspector general's audit found that the agency had released to the public 10 computers that had not had their memories wiped. Nine of them might have contained highly sensitive data.

The audit, filed by Inspector General Paul K. Martin, focused on the “disposition of shuttle-related IT” containing sensitive information. The 10 computers that the audit found from the Kennedy Space Center disposal facility “that were being prepared for sale on which NASA Internet Protocol information was prominently displayed.” Four more computers from the Kennedy site were confiscated that were being prepared for sale.

“Internet Protocol information could provide a hacker with the details needed to target specific NASA network assets and exploit weaknesses, resulting in the compromise of sensitive information,” the audit said.

The audit studied four NASA centers – Kennedy, Langley, Johnson and Ames – and found that no sanitization verification processes were being used at Johnson and Ames and that all four centers were either using improper sanitization methods or lacked oversight of the process for securing information in regards to the disposal or resale of excess IT equipment.


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The IG was not able to determine whether any of the computers actually did contain senstive information, according to the report. However, "[O]ur analysis of the computers we confiscated – one of which contained information subject to export control by [International Traffic in Arms Regulations] – and the type of work performed by these contractors raises serious concerns about the information that may have remained on the computers," the IG wrote.

The IG found that NASA has not notifed the appropriate agency or contractor personnel when computers failed sanitization testing. Also, IT equipment was not properly accounted for or tracked during the disposition and some computers that were awaiting final disposition contained external markings that revealed NASA IP information.

Nine of the 10 computers released were distributed to two NASA contractors and potentially had unsecured sensitive data on them based on the use-history of the devices. The 10th computer was determined not to be a risk factor because it had been used at a kiosk at Kennedy’s visitor center to provide general information to the public.

The audit said that NASA had both inadequate policies regarding data sanitization of excess IT material and what policies the agency did have in place were not adhered to.

The IG recommended that NASA’s CIO revise the IT disposition policy to include a sampling method of 20 percent as is the common standard set by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

“We continue to urge NASA to develop a sampling methodology that conforms to the 20 percent standard recommended by NIST,” the audit said.

About the Author

Dan Rowinski is a staff reporter covering communications technologies.

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Reader Comments

Fri, Dec 10, 2010

By reflex, the government response will be to revert to 'destroy it all', like DoD did for several years. In today's market, a PC with hard drive removed is basically sold at near scrap-metal prices.

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