NASA Failure to Secure Computer Systems Endangers Space Missions: Audit

An Inspector General audit found security vulnerabilities in the networks supporting NASA's missions. The problems would have been caught if last year's recommendations had been implemented.

NASA has a number of serious computer and network security issues that could have complicated missions and jeopardized lives, according to the latest audit report.

In an internal audit report, titled "Inadequate Security Practices Expose Key NASA Network to Cyber Attack," the Office of the Inspector General found critical vulnerabilities on six servers connected to the Internet at the National Aeronautics Space Agency. The vulnerabilities could have endangered Space Shuttle, International Space Station and Hubble Telescope missions, according to the report, released March 28.

While NASA's CIO Linda Cureton claimed to have patched those specific vulnerabilities, Inspector General Paul K. Martin noted that NASA does not have an ongoing security-oversight program for spotting and correcting these kinds of problems as they arise.

What's more worrying is that NASA had agreed to implement such a program last year after an audit criticized the agency for lacking basic security oversight, but hadn't done so yet. Martin gave NASA till Sept. 30 to come up with a plan to do so.

"These deficiencies occurred because NASA had not fully assessed and mitigated risks to the network and had not assigned responsibility for IT security oversight to ensure the network was adequately protected," the report said.

The audit uncovered other servers that exposed encryption keys, encrypted passwords and user-account information, all of which would allow attackers to gain unauthorized network access. The information could have been used to target personnel with phishing attacks and or emails containing malware.

The audit was focused on only mission-critical systems and did not assess the broader agency-wide network or systems that weren't connect to the Internet.

One server was found to be vulnerable to FTP-bounce attacks, according to the report. Attackers exploit the FTP protocol in a man-in-the-middle-style attack to request access to a network port. This technique can be used to port scan hosts or access specific ports not directly accessible.

"Until NASA addresses these critical deficiencies and improves its IT security practices the agency is vulnerable to computer incidents that could have a severe to catastrophic effect on agency assets, operations and personnel," the report said.

Cureton promised to start a pilot program by Aug. 21 for spotting risks on the rest of NASA's networks that don't have Internet connectivity.

An audit by the Government Accountability Office in October was similarly critical of the space agency's security practices. "NASA has not yet fully implemented key activities of its information-security program to ensure that controls are appropriately designed and operating effectively," the GAO report said.

Another Inspector General audit last year found NASA was not properly verifying sanitation procedures used on hard drives before disposing of them, exposing sensitive data.

The latest audit noted that NASA's servers have been broken into in the past. The report included two serious breaches in 2009, one of which resulted in attackers stealing 22GB of export-restricted data from a Jet Propulsion Laboratory computer system. In the other incident, an infected computer system supporting one of the mission networks was making more than 3,000 unauthorized connections to various IP addresses in the United States, China, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and Estonia, according to the report.