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The Los Alamos National Laboratory - easily the world's most sensitive and sophisticated research institution - is marred by cybersecurity weaknesses that compromise the way information on its unclassified network is protected.

According to an audit by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), the New Mexico-based LANL recently began implementing measures to shore up information security. But vulnerabilities remain on its unclassified network, which contains sensitive information involving controlled nukes, export control, and personal details of lab employees. Physical security was also found to be lacking at the facility, one of only three US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) labs.

"A successful physical or cyber attack on NNSA sites containing nuclear weapons, the material used in nuclear weapons, or information pertaining to the people who design and maintain the US nuclear deterrent could have devastating consequences for this site, its surrounding communities, and the nation's security, the report (PDF) warns. "Because of these risks, NNSA sites need effective physical and cyber security programs."

This isn't the first time security at LANL has been found to be lacking. In 2006, a drug raid on a private residence uncovered classified documents and information that had been improperly removed from the lab by a contract employee. An investigation into the incident later revealed a "serious breakdown in core laboratory physical and cyber security controls" contributed to the breach.

A security evaluation earlier this year by investigators from the Department of Energy concluded there were "significant weaknesses" in LANL's security program.

Last week's GAO report identified several critical areas inside LANL where physical and cyber security were flawed. They included the identifying and authenticating of users, the encryption of sensitive information and the monitoring and auditing of compliance with established security policies. The GAO also faulted policies for granting access to LANL's unclassified network by foreign nationals, some from countries considered "sensitive."

The report issued 52 recommendations for improvement. Among other things, they are aimed at "ensuring that LANL's risk assessment for its unclassified network evaluates all known vulnerabilities and is revised periodically."

The venerable LANL was ground zero for the Manhattan Project and also the birth place for the hydrogen bomb.

"Clearly the threat to cybersecurity is currently our No. 1 concern," LANL spokesman Kevin Roark said. "We've made great strides in the area of cybersecurity at Los Alamos over the past few years. Obviously, this is a journey, not a destination. It's a constant battle." ®

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