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Cyberattacks Show Need to Protect Federal Sites

The network attacks that severely disrupted several federal agency Web sites this week highlights the need for the government to quickly finish implementing its ongoing consolidation of Internet access points, the former de facto CIO of the federal government and others said today.

Multiple government Web sites, including that of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of the Treasury, were temporarily knocked out or slowed down earlier this week by a wave of distributed denial of service attacks.

The attacks were launched from a botnet believed to comprise of nearly 50,000 infected computers, and were designed to render Web sites inaccessible by inundating them with useless traffic.

Security researchers have described the attacks as being relatively unsophisticated. Even so, the attacks still managed to totally shut down the Web sites of the FTC and Department of Transportation for several hours over the weekend, according to statistics available from Internet monitoring firm Keynote Systems.

The most important lesson learned is that many federal agency security people did not know which network service provider connected their Web sites to the Internet, said Alan Paller, director of research the SANS Institute. "So they could not get the network service provider to filter traffic," Paller said.

The problem has to do with that federal agencies have more access points to the Internet than they know how to monitor or to manage, said Karen Evans, former de facto CIO of the federal government during the Bush administration.

An initiative called the Trusted Internet Connections (TIC) program, which was launched in November 2007, is designed to tackle this issue by getting agencies to drastically reduce the number of individual external network connections, including those to the Internet.

Since the effort was launched, the number of access points across government has been reduced from more than 4,300 to about 2,750, per the last time data on the effort was publicly released in June 2008. The goal is to whittle that number down to about 80.

Instead of having each individual agency manage its own connections, the plan is to have a small group of TIC access providers offering centralized connectivity and gateway-monitoring services to a majority of civilian federal agencies. While 16 agencies will act as their own access providers, 121 others will have their connections managed via a U.S. General Services Administration-approved service provider.

Such a consolidation of access points and management functions would allow for much better network monitoring, filtering and incident response than is possible today across civilian government, Evans said.

"The TIC initiative is about closing down external access points so that you can then monitor traffic in a way that allows you to take more strategic [actions to protect federal networks against threats]," she said.

The model would be similar to the one in existence across Department of Defense networks, Evans said. "The DoD works as a single enterprise. They manage their network as a corporate asset and they do things in accordance with a framework" that is consistent across the .mil domain she said.

"They have been working on this for several years. They know where their external access points or so they are monitoring them," in better fashion than civilian agencies are, she said.

As a result, DoD networks are better prepared and equipped to respond in a more coordinated fashion to attacks of the sort witnessed this week, she said. Evans said that after this week's attacks it won't be surprising at all if more agencies move faster to the TIC model than they have been.

"TIC offers a capability to immediately block those offending IP addresses that are launching an attack," said Patricia Titus, former chief information security officer at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), who now holds a similar job at Unisys Corp.

But a lot will depend on how securely it is architected, Titus said. A major component of TIC is a federal network monitoring technology called Einstein that is designed to capture anomalous network activity and flag suspicious behavior in near real-time.

If this component is not well implemented, the network access point consolidation could end up giving attackers a central point to go after federal systems, she said. But she added it is "very unlikely" that such an implementation error would be allowed to happen. "The government has put out a very careful thought out architecture. This is something they are definitely paying attention to."

Details on the consolidated access points will also not be publicly published making them harder to find and therefore to attack, Evans said.

This week's attacks show how federal agencies continue to remain vulnerable to network threats despite having relatively sophisticated, well-funded and well-staffed security operations, said Amit Yoran, former director of the National Cybersecurity Division at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

"If this can happen to organizations such as the ones affected, it certainly can happen to people downstream as well," said Yoran, who is now CEO of security vendor NetWitness Corp. The attacks show the need for organizations to centralize security policy and enable persistent monitoring of network ingress and egress points in the manner being contemplated by TIC, Yoran said.

"If you don't have consistent monitoring of access points then the risk accepted by one gateway or one component of your network is effectively shared by all participants in the enterprise," he said.

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