The Incredibly Dumb Way the Government Is Guarding Top-Secret Data

Federal departments have made themselves pretty easy to hack, says a new report.

National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
Feb. 4, 2014, 10:46 a.m.

Some of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s most sens­it­ive data are pro­tec­ted by pass­words that wouldn’t pass muster for even the most ba­sic ci­vil­ian email ac­count, ac­cord­ing to a new con­gres­sion­al re­port.

Pass­words like “pass­word,” “qwerty,” and users’ names have left Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment data vul­ner­able, says a re­port re­leased Tues­day by the Re­pub­lic­an staff of the Sen­ate Home­land Se­cur­ity and Gov­ern­ment­al Af­fairs Com­mit­tee.

And the pass­word fiasco, the re­port says, is only the tip of the ice­berg — plenty of oth­er agen­cies have lost sens­it­ive data as well.

The Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion left nuc­le­ar-plant se­cur­ity de­tails on a shared drive with no pro­tec­tion. Hack­ers swiped In­form­a­tion on the na­tion’s dams — in­clud­ing their weak­nesses and cata­stroph­ic po­ten­tial if breached — from an Army Corps of En­gin­eers data­base.

All that’s too much for Sen. Tom Coburn of Ok­lahoma, the pan­el’s top Re­pub­lic­an. “Weak­nesses in the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s own cy­ber­se­cur­ity have put at risk the elec­tric­al grid, our fin­an­cial mar­kets, our emer­gency-re­sponse sys­tems, and our cit­izens’ per­son­al in­form­a­tion,” he said.

So far, the se­cur­ity fail­ings have been more comed­ic than cata­stroph­ic (in one in­stance, hack­ers used the Emer­gency Broad­cast Sys­tem to warn TV view­ers of a zom­bie out­break). But the re­port warned we may not be so lucky in the fu­ture — and the prob­lem ap­pears to be wide­spread:

In ad­di­tion, hack­ers have pen­et­rated, taken con­trol of, caused dam­age to, and/or stolen sens­it­ive per­son­al and of­fi­cial in­form­a­tion from com­puter sys­tems at the De­part­ments of Home­land Se­cur­ity, Justice, De­fense, State, Labor, En­ergy, and Com­merce; NASA; the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency; the Of­fice of Per­son­nel Man­age­ment; the Fed­er­al Re­serve; the Com­mod­ity Fu­tures Trad­ing Com­mis­sion; the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion; the U.S. Copy­right Of­fice; and the Na­tion­al Weath­er Ser­vice.

“These are just hacks whose de­tails be­came known to the pub­lic,” the re­port ad­ded.

At the Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion — re­spons­ible for safe­guard­ing the na­tion’s nuc­le­ar plants — faith in IT is so bad that em­ploy­ees have star­ted buy­ing their own com­puters and set­ting up sep­ar­ate net­works, which cre­ates a whole new series of se­cur­ity con­cerns.

Things aren’t much bet­ter at the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cur­ity. “To take just one ex­ample, weak­nesses found in the of­fice of the Chief In­form­a­tion Of­ficer for ICE in­cluded 10 pass­words writ­ten down, 15 FOUO (For Of­fi­cial Use Only) doc­u­ments left out, three keys, six un­locked laptops — even two cred­it cards left out,” the re­port stated.

NRC spokes­man Eli­ot Bren­ner said many of that agency’s safety is­sues have already been ad­dressed. All 44 se­cur­ity re­com­mend­a­tions in re­ports cited by the com­mit­tee have been closed or re­solved pending fi­nal im­ple­ment­a­tion, he said. “The NRC takes in­form­a­tion se­cur­ity very ser­i­ously and works con­tinu­ously to­ward im­prove­ments,” Bren­ner said.

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