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NASA Told To Plug IT Security Holes

The space agency has suffered hundreds of security incidents, including malware, data breaches, stolen laptops, and bot nets, according to the GAO.

NASA was hit with more malware than any other federal agency in 2007 and 2008, according to a new report issued by the Government Accountability Office.

During that two-year period, NASA reported 1,120 security incidents, including the installation of malicious software on agency computers and unauthorized access to sensitive information, according to GAO. NASA laptops were stolen that stored unencrypted data on a prototype hypersonic jet (the X-51 scramjet) and test plans pertaining to a space telescope and lunar orbiter.

In another case, 82 NASA computers became part of a Ukraine-based bot net after being infected with rootkits. Separately, 86 computers were infected by the Zoneback Trojan, which can disable security software and run other malicious software.

After those attacks, the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team urged the space agency to employ consistent patching and better train its employees in cyber security. Despite that warning, NASA found a number of machines infected with the Coreflood Trojan, which can steal user credentials, and "communicating with a hostile command and control server."

NASA has taken steps to improve incident response and strengthen its cybersecurity practices, but gaps remain, according to GAO. "NASA remains vulnerable to similar incidents going forward," the report finds. "Control vulnerabilities and program shortfalls make it possible for intruders, as well as government and contractor employees, to bypass or disable computer access controls and undertake a wide variety of inappropriate or malicious acts."

GAO made eight broad recommendations, including developing more fully NASA's risk assessment and security policies and procedures. It also issued a limited distribution report with nearly 200 specific recommendations addressing 129 identified weaknesses.

NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver concurred with GAO's recommendations. "Deficiencies with IT security are often a result of systemic issues in the management of IT," she said. "To this end, NASA continues to implement improvements in IT management, adhering to [a] previously developed strategy for providing an integrated, secure, and efficient IT environment that supports the NASA mission."

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