[ISN] NASA cyber program bears fruit

From: InfoSec News (isnat_private)
Date: Tue Oct 15 2002 - 10:18:27 PDT

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    By Megan Lisagor 
    Oct. 14, 2002
    NASA has demonstrated that using a scanning and remediation program
    can turn the tide against hackers, according to a recent report.
    The SANS Institute released its NASA case study to coincide with the
    Oct. 2 release of the top 20 security vulnerabilities in the Unix and
    Microsoft Corp. Windows environments.
    In fact, the idea for the top 20 list came from NASA's efforts to tame
    the cyber beast, according to Alan Paller, research director at the
    institute. Although the space agency outsources its more than 80,000
    desktop computers, which are spread among several facilities, it
    maintains responsibility for their security.
    In 1999, NASA identified the 50 most serious flaws plaguing its
    computers in response to an increasing number of attacks. Then using
    available funds, the agency bought and deployed a standard suite of
    scanning tools agencywide. Beginning in fiscal 2000, all
    network-connected computers were tested for the top 50 flaws and
    system owners were challenged to fix any problems.
    "We had to market this within NASA," said Dave Nelson, a senior
    official in the chief information officer's office. "As the network
    has become more important, it's not possible for individual
    organizations to work in isolation."
    To bring the entire agency on board, then-CIO Lee Holcomb set a
    target: Each center would decrease the ratio of
    vulnerabilities-to-computers from 1-to-1 to 1-to-4. "It got into a
    spirit of competition," Nelson said.
    That spirit was the key, because people were given the opportunity to
    succeed, Paller said. "They never used it as a 'gotcha.' They gave
    them at least a full quarter to fix" a problem.
    NASA tracks progress quarterly and, in fiscal 2002, began updating the
    list just as regularly. In addition to scanning for security problems,
    the agency relies on intrusion detection and other measures.
    "We've seen that this general approach works," Nelson said. "The cost
    is acceptable. Other agencies are picking it up."
    NASA spends $2 million to $3 million a year on the program, or about
    $30 per computer annually.
    "The need for large-scale contracting is nonexistent," Paller said.  
    "This was less than 3 percent of their security budget, and all of us
    can find 3 percent."
    The cost is almost entirely in labor, so looking ahead, NASA wants to
    move to better management tools and use the General Services
    Administration's patching service when it becomes available, Nelson
    said. The agency is also trying to incorporate artificial intelligence
    that better identifies intrusion patterns.
    It has already reduced the number of system compromises and the ratio
    of vulnerabilities-to-computers to about 1-to-10, Nelson said. Now "we
    can jump on an emergency very quickly," he said.
    Despite making progress, NASA must stay up-to-date on the latest
    vulnerabilities, according to Bill Wall, chief security engineer with
    Harris Corp.'s STAT network security group.
    "In my mind [updating the list] bi-weekly is the best schedule," said
    Wall, who worked as chief of computer security at the agency's Ames
    Research Center in California for six years. "NASA's always a likely
    Experts responded similarly to the top 20 list, calling it a good
    place for organizations to start as part of a larger cybersecurity
    The institute announced the list with the FBI's National
    Infrastructure Protection Center, the Federal Computer Incident
    Response Center and the Critical Infrastructure Protection Board. The
    group plans to offer free weekly or monthly updates to the list.
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