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