US air traffic control open to attack

Computers not adequately secured


The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has agreed to examine computer security at air traffic control centers around the country, following a government audit that found the systems insufficiently secured against cyber attacks.

Auditors found that the FAA hadn't adequately secured computers running at the 20 "en route centers" that direct high-altitude traffic nationwide. "While having limited exposure to the general public, en route center computer systems need to be better protected," reads the report, dated 1 October.

The assessment comes from the Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General, in a yearly cyber security review required of all federal agencies under the 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA). The review covers all of the Department's components, but singles out the FAA for special attention as custodian of the nation's air traffic control - considered a "critical infrastructure" by presidential directive.

Auditors' other major complaint was that the FAA's security certification process was "limited to developmental systems located at FAA's Technical Center computer laboratory", and overlooked the systems once they were deployed. "FAA needs to commit to reviewing all operational air traffic control systems - at en route, approach control, and airport terminal facilities," the report reads.

The FAA's IT security also suffers in close inspection. "For example, we found that FAA checked vulnerabilities on major computer servers but not on end-user computers," reads the report. "As a result, tens of thousands of workstations on its networks have not been checked for vulnerabilities."

"FAA... needs to make certain that it follows through aggressively to implement corrective actions in order to prevent the security program from deteriorating into a significant deficiency next year," the report concludes.

Computer security issues have dogged the FAA since 1998, when congressional investigators first reported on pervasive weaknesses in the air traffic control network, and claimed to have found evidence that some systems had been penetrated and critical data compromised. In 2000, a GAO report criticized the FAA for not performing background checks on IT contractors, failing to install intrusion detection systems, and not performing adequate risk assessments and penetration tests on agency systems. In 2002, hackers penetrated an administrative FAA system and downloaded unpublished information on airport passenger screening activities.

"The FAA has made significant progress in its information security program," said agency spokesperson Tammy Jones. "We do concur with the Inspector General's report that more needs to be done, so we continue to work on our systems."

The agency says it will perform security certification reviews of all operational air traffic control systems within three years. It will also develop a contingency plan to restore essential air service during a prolonged disruption at an en route facility.

Though not mentioned in the report, last month the public got a harsh glimpse of the havoc such a disruption might cause when the computer controlling a sophisticated radio system crashed at the Los Angeles Enroute Air Traffic Control Center in Palmdale, California.

Controllers were unable to communicate with aircraft for three hours, resulting in hundreds of flights being grounded and five cases of airplanes drifting closer to each other than safety regulations permit. The Los Angeles Times reported that the outage was the result of a worker neglecting to perform a monthly reset of a Windows-based control system, resulting in its automatic shutdown after 49.7 days of operation. A backup system also failed.

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