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FAA: Air Traffic Holes Have Been Plugged

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

the Internet.

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

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