Feds Move to Secure Net

By Dennis Fisher  |  Posted 2003-03-10 Print this article Print

The government has developed a secure, private IP network separate from the public Internet that will be used by federal agencies and private-sector experts to share information during large-scale security events.

SAN DIEGO—The White House and the new Department of Homeland Security have begun in earnest the process of implementing the plan to secure the nations critical networks—starting with extensive changes in the federal security infrastructure.

The most significant move is the development of a private, compartmentalized network that will be used by federal agencies and private-sector experts to share information during large-scale security events, government officials said at the National Information Assurance Leadership conference here last week.

The system is part of the newly created Cyber Warning Information Network, a group of organizations including the National Infrastructure Protection Center, the Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office and others that have some responsibility for the security of federal systems. The private-sector Information Sharing and Analysis Centers will also be included.

The Cyber Warning Information Network, a key part of the Bush administrations National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace, will use a secure, private IP network separate from the public Internet, according to officials. The government currently has seven nodes running, said Marcus Sachs, seen on left, director of communications infrastructure protection at the Office of Cyberspace Security, in Washington.

Sachs, speaking at the conference here, which was put on by The SANS Institute, pointed to last weeks handling of the critical vulnerability in the Sendmail Mail Transfer Agent package as a prime example of how such back-channel communication between vendors, researchers and the government can help protect end users. Researchers at Internet Security Systems Inc., in Atlanta, discovered the vulnerability in mid-February and immediately notified officials at the White House and the Department of Homeland Security.

The government quietly spread the word among federal agencies and, along with ISS, began contacting the affected vendors. After the vendors developed patches, the fixes were deployed quickly on critical government, military and private-sector machines before the official announcement of the vulnerability.

However, some in the security community say that until the CWIN is fully operational and proven, theyll continue to use existing methods.

"I would not have used CWIN for Sendmail. There are too many questions about something that has not been fully deployed," said Pete Allor, manager of the threat intelligence service at ISS and director of operations at the Information Technology ISAC. "Id like to know who Im transmitting information to and the rules for dissemination.

"My two biggest concerns are having private-sector information on a government network and if Congress withdraws the [Freedom of Information Act] exemption, there wont be any reason for private companies to use [the CWIN]," Allor said. While speculation exists, to date no bill has been introduced to remove the FOIA exemption in the Homeland Security Act.

As part of the plan to improve security, the CIO of each federal agency is, by statute, now accountable for the security of that agencys network. This is a significant change, considering the lack of responsibility permeating government security efforts.

"This is the first time this has ever happened," Sachs said. "It used to be that it was their job, but they just said, Yeah, I guess were secure."

The internal structure of the governments security apparatus is also undergoing some major changes, officials said. The Presidents Critical Infrastructure Protection Board, formerly part of the Office of Cyberspace Security, is now part of the Homeland Security Council. But that may not be where it ends up. There are indications that the board may end up as part of the Department of Homeland Security.

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