Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2003/05/29/too_much_cyber_security/

‘Too much cyber security’ at CIA

Risk exclusion

By Kevin Poulsen

Posted in Security, 29th May 2003 08:46 GMT

While other government agencies struggle with their cyber security practices, the Central Intelligence Agency apparently suffers from the opposite problem: too much security -- according to a recent study of the agency's use of information technology.

In an unclassified report titled "Failing to Keep Up With the Information Revolution," former CIA officer Bruce Berkowitz -- now a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution -- found that the agency's intelligence analysts were hobbled by outdated software and cut off from many of the technological advances that workers outside the intelligence community take for granted.

Agency e-mail systems are clumsy, and the CIA's search engine is so "primitive" that analysts maintain informal networks of personal contacts within the agency just to track down the information they need to do their job. "A good analyst either knows someone, or 'knows someone who knows someone,' at another office or organization who can get the information they need," wrote Berkowitz.

Berkowitz partly blames tightfisted technology spending for the bureaucratic tangles, but concludes that the biggest impediment to applying information technology effectively is the agency's old-fashioned binary approach to cyber security, in which every system is either considered entirely secure, or completely insecure.

"The problem is that, when it comes to IT, the CIA's approach is not 'risk management,' but 'risk exclusion,'" the report concludes. "It is rare for anyone to do a formal cost-benefit analysis for a security rule affecting the use of IT, and hardly anyone asks whether a proposed rule will affect the ability of analysts to do their work."

As an example, Berkowitz noted that until recently the CIA banned Palm Pilots from the workplace for security reasons. And the agency only reluctantly brought Internet access to analyst's desks.

For the study, Berkowitz spoke to nearly 100 analysts, technicians, and managers at the intelligence agency during 2001-2002, while a visiting scholar at the Sherman Kent Center for Intelligence Analysis, an agency think tank. His report was published in the most recent unclassified edition of the CIA's journal "Studies in Intelligence."

Among other recommendations, Berkowitz suggests the Virginia-based spy agency take into account varying levels of risk and costs in protecting different types of information -- "solving security requirements rather than simply eliminating potential threats."

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