US Air traffic safe from hackers – FAA

Pilots are now optional

Computer security weaknesses in the U.S. air traffic control network that have dogged the Federal Aviation Administration since 1998 have been substantially closed, the FAA's CIO said Thursday, but the agency needs more funding to continue the effort.

"I think we've made a lot of progress in the last couple of years," said Daniel Mehan, speaking on a panel at the RSA Conference in San Jose, Calif. "I think, for example, it is safe to fly... But we can not continue it without getting substantial aid from the administration and Congress."

The FAA was criticized in a September, 2000, GAO report for not performing background checks on IT contractors, failing to install intrusion detection systems, and not performing adequate risk assessments and penetration tests on agency systems. It was the third time in as many years that the agency had flunked an audit by Congress' investigative arm.

"Until FAA addresses the pervasive weaknesses in its computer security program, its critical information systems will remain at increased risk of intrusion and attack, and its aviation operations will remain at risk," the 2000 report concluded.

Mehan outlined the FAA's current cyber security practices, which include maintaining redundant systems, seperating administrative networks from control networks, and using "firebreaks" as a hedge against viruses and worms that might get into an internal network. "At FAA we believe in layers of protection," said Mehan. "So you contain any attack in certain parts, and then use redundancy as a backup."

The FAA update offered a grounded moment in a panel that brought together five lawmakers and government officials to ponder a question that could have been ripped from a supermarket tabloid: "Which is the greatest threat to our well-being: intercontinental nuclear missiles or cyber terrorism?"

That question went unanswered, but some on the panel seemed to favor the latter.

"Certainly intercontinental missiles are an issue," said Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA). "But I think that we have infrastructure ways to protect ourselves... Whereas cyber terrorism, I question how much knowledge and protection we have."

"Clearly, the threat is real," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA). "Following September 11, Osama bin Laden reportedly spoke of attacking U.S. computers."

The session continued the theme struck by the conference's opening keynote Tuesday, when White House cyber security czar Richard Clarke urged industry to spend more money on information security, lest America's enemies launch devastating cyber attacks on the electric power grid, telecommunications networks and air traffic control systems -- all of which he said relied on the Internet.

Panelists unanimously expressed support for the White House's belief in terrorist hackers, though Mehan -- perhaps unwittingly -- contradicted one of Clarke's assertions. "Our air traffic does not use the Internet," he said.

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