Defense Department Computers Vulnerable To Attack
ricardo dominguez <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Sun, 10 Dec 2000 11:34:53 -0500
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Defense Department Computers Vulnerable To
By Walter Pincus, Washington Post
WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A.,
08 Dec 2000, 2:58 PM CST
The Defense Department suffered more than 22,000 electronic attacks on its
computer systems in 1999 and about 14,000 in the first seven months of this
year, the Pentagon's chief information officer said.
The vast majority of those attacks were either harmless or caused only petty
harassment, but in a few cases, hackers believed to be working for foreign
countries have broken into unclassified computer systems and downloaded
large amounts of information, said Arthur Money, the assistant secretary of
defense for command, control, communications and intelligence.
Pentagon officials said that, to the best of their knowledge, the Department of
Defense's classified computer systems have not been breached.
The DoD was able to make an accurate count of the number of attacks for the
first time last year, because at the end of 1998 it installed devices to monitor
attempts by hackers to penetrate its computers.
In 1999, the Pentagon detected 22,144 attempts to probe, scan, hack into,
infect with viruses or disable its computers. About 3 percent (or more than
600) of those incidents caused temporary shutdowns or other damage. About 1
percent (or roughly 200) were intrusions by hackers who managed to break into
unclassified computer systems.
So far this year, officials said, the number of attacks is up approximately 10
percent, and the percentage that have caused damage or resulted in intrusions
is about the same.
In an interview, Money predicted that the number of attacks is only "going to
increase" in the future.
"A majority of the attacks [that cause damage] come through vulnerabilities in
existing software, most of it from commercial companies" such as Microsoft,
Netscape and Lotus, he said.
Although the Pentagon is "putting more and more effort into testing"
off-the-shelf software and is working with major software companies in the
design stages, Money added, "there is hardly any way to prevent"
vulnerabilities from creeping into the millions of lines of commercial computer
code written not only in the United States, but also in India, Ireland, Israel and
"On a lot of these [programs], we don't know where the code is written," he
Many of the vulnerabilities are unintentional, but some appear to be "trapdoors"
deliberately left by software writers to allow intrusions, and others are
"backdoors" that were designed to help systems administrators but have been
"discovered by kids and hackers and used to harass the systems," a Pentagon
official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
As a result, the official added, "we are not buying such off-the-shelf products
in our most sensitive systems."
The Pentagon's cyber security problem is enormous. The Defense Department
has roughly 10,000 computer systems and 1.5 million individual computers.
About 2,000 of the systems are "mission-critical," meaning that they "must
work for [the DoD] to successfully execute its myriad missions," Money told a
House Armed Services subcommittee in March.
"We are probed on a daily basis by those who are trying, or planning, to disrupt
our nation's military capabilities," he said, adding that the Pentagon has
discovered "a few nation state operatives doing major downloadings of
In August, Congress put an additional $163 million for computer security into
the fiscal 2001 defense appropriations bill. But the House-Senate conferees'
report on the bill warned that the new funds "will be of limited value if the
software used by the department has been designed with intentional
weaknesses to permit future unauthorized access."
The conference report directed the Pentagon "to carefully consider the origin
of all software used in developing or upgrading information technology or
national security systems."
The "seminal event" that awakened the Pentagon to its computer security
problems occurred in February 1998, Money said, when some California youths,
under the direction of an Israeli, took advantage of a "well-known vulnerability
in Sun software" to break into the Solaris operating system used by several
Those attacks, which came as preparations were underway for a possible
military operation against Iraq, "were widespread, systematic and showed a
pattern that indicated they might be the preparation for a coordinated attack
on the defense information infrastructure," then Deputy Defense Secretary
John J. Hamre told Congress in 1999.
Military computer administrators had been warned about the weakness that the
California hackers exploited, but many had failed to heed the warning and
patch their systems, Money said.
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