By Sharon Gaudin
June 21, 2007
Within the past year, a hacker secretly broke into the Department of
Homeland Security network and deleted, updated, and captured information
-- all without anyone knowing he was even in there.
Luckily, the hacker was Keith A. Rhodes, chief technologist at the U.S.
Government Accountability Office. Rhodes, considered to be the federal
government's top hacker, has a congressional mandate to test the network
security at 24 government agencies and departments. He performs 10
penetration tests a year on agencies such as the IRS and the Department
of Agriculture. And for the past year, he's been testing the network at
"I would label them [DHS] as being at high risk," Rhodes told
InformationWeek the day after a congressional hearing into the security
of the government agency tasked with being the leader of the nation's
cybersecurity. "There was no system we tested that didn't have problems.
There was nothing we touched that didn't have weaknesses, ranging from
WAN to desktops. ... If we had continued the audit we would have found
more. We curtailed the audit because we just kept finding problems. At a
certain point, we just ran out of room in our basket."
Rhodes was one of the people who testified before the congressional
hearing that took the Department of Homeland Security and its CIO, Scott
Charbo, to task for weaknesses in the department's computer network.
Jim Langevin, D-R.I., chairman of the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats,
Cybersecurity, and Science and Technology, said at the hearing Wednesday
afternoon that the 844 incidents came during fiscal 2005 and 2006. He
also said the infiltration of federal government networks and the
possible theft or exploitation of information on them is one of the most
critical issues confronting the country, noting that the Chinese have
been "coordinating attacks against the Department of Defense for years."
However, Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, said
844 is most likely only a piece of the security breaches that the
department suffered in that two-year span.
"The reality is that the federal agencies don't report all of them," he
said in an interview after the hearing. "Eight hundred and forty-four is
a big number, but it's a sample of the reality, not the total reality."
Paller said the 844 incidents reported to executives at DHS could be as
much as 80% of the real total or as little as 10%. He estimates it's
closer to half. "You don't know about all of them. That I can
guarantee," he said. "And in particular, you're not knowing about the
worst ones." According to Langevin's testimony, the incidents included
workstations infected with Trojans and viruses, a compromised department
Web site, classified e-mails being sent over unclassified networks, and
unauthorized users attaching their personal computers to DHS networks
and gaining access to government equipment and data. He also said the
incidents included "numerous classified data spillages."
There also was a report of a password dumping utility found on two DHS
systems. Paller explained that it's malware that steals entire password
files from the server and sends them back to a remote hacker. "This
would give [a hacker] the ability to crack the system," he noted. "Most
people use the same user name and passwords on lots of systems, so that
hacker now has access to lots and lots of machines and systems."
Paller, though, said it's highly likely that the worst breaches are the
ones that are not being reported.
"If you have a really embarrassing event, you don't want it leaking
out," he added. "Many agencies feel it's less of a problem to not tell,
than to tell and be beaten up about it."
Both Paller and Rhodes said part of the problem is with the contractors'
systems where they say a great deal of sensitive information is stored.
"Government systems are about [as secure] as most commercial systems but
not as secure as banks," said Paller. "But a lot of government data is
less than average because it's stored at contractor sites."
Rhodes said when he went to DHS to look into its security systems, IT
workers there had to defer to the contractors to understand what the
system was doing.
"Having contractors run the system is not a bad thing," added Rhodes.
"But outsourcing is not an abdication of responsibility. Just because
you bring the contractors in does not mean you should have an
environment where the only person looking in the system is a contractor.
To understand how the system was set up and what it was doing, we had to
talk to contractors."
"There is a threat and there's also an impact," he said. "They hold
personally identifying information. They've got a lot of information
about a lot of people, and some of those people are good people and some
are bad people. Is this information important to you? Yes, it's
important to everybody in the United States. ... Any government agency
that has weak security has an impact on the national security mission."
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