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Poor coordination in DoD response to hacks

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The US military's ability to defend against cyber attacks is hampered by a dearth of coordination among the armed services, and a poorly implemented alert system, according to a new report by government investigators.

The report, "Information Security -- Challenges to Improving DOD's Incident Response Capabilities," was issued last week by the General Accounting Office (GAO), Congress' investigative arm. It found the Defense Department lacks a coordinated approach to ensuring that its systems are patched against the latest software vulnerabilities, and to conducting security assessments.

According to the report, the armed services performed over 150 computer security assessments last year, including some simulated hack attacks by a National Security Agency (NSA) red team, and identified hundreds of vulnerabilities in defense systems. But those audits were not coordination and prioritized.

"Instead, vulnerability assessments are generally conducted only when requested by component commanders or service-level audit agencies," reads the report. "There was no departmentwide process to identify which systems or networks faced the greatest risks and therefore should be assigned the highest priority for vulnerability assessments."

The GAO audit was performed at the request of the Military Readiness subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.

Investigators also found that logs from the 445 host-based and 647 network-based intrusion detection systems (IDS) in place on military networks are not integrated and tracked together, a tactic that would help the Pentagon spot coordinated attacks that touch a variety of defense networks. "Because of the threat of these kinds of attacks, it is increasingly important to collect intrusion data from as many systems and sensors as possible," the report reads.

But in a response attached to the GAO report, the Defense Department wrote that the Pentagon has a centralized system that is currently receiving intrusion detection data from all the services: the Air Force, Army and Navy. "While work remains to refine the process, the database is in place and operating."

By its own figures, the Defense Department relies on over 2.5 million unclassified computer systems on some 10,000 local area networks. The GAO did not audit the Pentagon's procedures for securing classified networks.

INFOCON flawed

The audit also found also found deficiencies in the Defense Department's Information Operations Condition system, called INFOCON.

In the same way DEFCON establishes the military's overall defense condition, INFOCON sets the level of alert for defense computer networks, on a five-level scale ranging from 'normal' to 'INFOCON DELTA' -- all out information warfare. The system was established in 1999 by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

An overall INFOCON level is set by the Department of Defense, and commanders are free to increase, but not decrease, the level locally. But the system fails to define with particularity the appropriate response to each threat level, the GAO found. "Inexperienced personnel may overreact and implement drastic countermeasures, resulting in self-inflicted problems, such as degraded system performance or communication disruptions."

The flaws in the INFOCON system were evident when last year's "ILOVEYOU" virus struck. First, it took the Defense Department several hours to decide on an overall INFOCON level. Then individual commanders "independently chose a variety of different levels and responses," according to the GAO.

"For example, some commands made few changes to their daily operational procedures, while others cut off all electronic mail communications and thus became isolated from outside contact regarding the status of the attack," reads the report.

In a written response attached to the report, Arthur Money, Defense Department CIO and US Assistant Secretary of Defense for command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I), largely concurred with the report, and its recommendations that the Pentagon improve cyber defense coordination, among other things.

"The [Defense] Department has made tremendous strides to improve our overall information assurance posture," wrote Money, "but recognizes the need to strengthen our posture and implement out Defense-in-Depth Strategy. Your recommendations are very consistent with many of our ongoing efforts."

© 2001 SecurityFocus.com, all rights reserved.

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