Deborah M. | May 10, 2012

Defense Department's work-from-home policy requires lots of precaution

For many Department of Defense employees, a new policy encouraging working from home could be an opportunity to nix stressful Beltway commutes, concentrate in silence or make a living while healing from combat injuries.

But for hackers who make a living stealing information from unsecured personal computers and network connections, the policy could be an open door to the country's most sensitive classified information.

Maybe not. According to some of the nation's foremost security experts, the risk is about the same as it would be if employees were logging in for a private sector job or at the Pentagon itself.

"I don't see it in any way opening up Pandora's box," said Marty Lindner, principal engineer for the Cert Program at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute. He said the government's risk assessments and technological controls have made teleworking for the defense department about as safe as it is at any business in the country.

Cert is a federally-funded program that maintains communications among security experts who address major cyber attacks.

Seán McGurk, vice president of national critical infrastructure for the U.K.-based cybersecurity think-tank, the Center for Strategic Cyberspace + Security Science, seconded the assessment.

"It's no more [of a risk] than when employees are on [direct] networks nowadays. Really, when you look at teleworking, it's just an extension of where your desk is," he said.

Following the lead of private companies using the Internet and cloud computing to extend employees' desks to their homes, the Obama administration approved the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 in an effort to spread the trend throughout all federal departments. The Department of Defense issued its policy in April, which ordered managers to "overcome artificial barriers" -- or a culture of reluctance toward off-site work -- and encourage more employees to work outside of federal offices.

The policy applies to all defense department entities and encourages telework for the "maximum number of positions to the extent that mission readiness is not jeopardized."

The Department of Defense, the largest employer in the world, employed 783,223 civilians across the globe as of Jan, 31.

Getting officials to agree to the idea was one matter, but creating the standards that any government telework policy must abide by was a critical step that involved a working group of key industry experts, said Mr. McGurk, who was employed by the Department of Homeland Security in 2008 when that department's telework policy was instituted.

He said a White House subcommittee that included top private sector IT and security professionals focused on mandatory security requirements and in 2009 commissioned the National Institute of Standards and Technology to create the "Guide to Enterprise Telework and Remote Access Security" to help departments set standards for their individual telework policies.

"Those standards and practices were put in place long before we started the implementation process, which for the government is kind of unusual. We usually put the cart far before the horse. In this case, we did a lot of groundwork before we actually enacted the requirements," he said.

While many of the DOD's guidelines -- which include mandatory system updates and anti-virus and firewall installation; protecting information and equipment; using government equipment for controlled unclassified data; prohibiting removal of classified documents without approval; and requiring encryption and government equipment when accessing personally identifiable information -- fall in line with industry standard best practices, the department has taken the protections several steps further, said Mr. McGurk.

For instance, while many companies use a software interface to connect teleworkers to remote servers rather than the organization's actual computers, the department adds total disc encryption to obscure information in case it's stolen or hacked. It also uses two-factor authentication, which requires teleworkers to use a physical component such as an encrypted USB stick or a scan of employees' Common Access Cards in addition to passwords to connect to servers remotely.

Mechanical protections aside, one of the most important safeguards came from decisions surrounding who is and isn't eligible for telework.

Mr. McGurk said anyone working directly with personal health care information, military operations and capabilities will be restricted in any telework assignments. Also, service members or civilian employees working with information associated with "threats, threat actors, means, methods and capabilities," will most likely find themselves driving to the office.

"A lot of the data associated with analyzing who the threats are and where the threats are coming from, that would be a good example of something that you're not going to have in your basement. Most of that information is maintained in secure and classified facilities throughout the United States," he said.

However, technological barricades are only effective as long as human operators ensure information isn't stolen through other channels. The 2012 Information Security Breaches Survey by U.K.-based consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers found 82 percent of the large companies that participated reported security breaches caused by employee actions, 47 percent of which lost confidential information.

In response to the survey, Oakland-based cybersecurity training company Wombat Security Technologies issued a list of five rules for teleworkers last month. The list of unsafe practices includes taking sensitive information out of the office, using free Wi-Fi connections, using public computers, operating file sharing software on work equipment and allowing others to use work equipment.

Wombat President Joe Ferrara said the simple tips are often ignored because users, including teleworkers, generally believe their systems aren't worth hacking.

Even when teleworkers do everything by the letter, he said, 20 to 60 percent fall for attacks unknowingly through malicious emails and corrupted links on safe sites. "Often employees don't necessarily appreciate what the consequences are of following a link, opening an email or plugging in a device," he said.

Government teleworkers are required to complete interactive training programs and enter written agreements with supervisors regarding acceptable behaviors, but no amount of additional training will make a network safe, said Center for Strategic Cyberspace + Security Science president Richard Zaluski.

Whether a computer is connected directly to a network or is making the connection from a Starbucks, he said no system is impenetrable and hackers are constantly finding new methods to break in.

Noting there is a potential vulnerability for every 2,000 lines of code written for a given program, and that many program codes require up to 200 million lines of code, he said every organization -- public or private -- faces attacks it may not be prepared to defend.

"Even if the user did all of their due diligence, [the threat's] still there. That's why people still get attacked," he said.

In the case of the Department of Defense, the risk, according to Mr. McGurk, is well worth the benefits of an invigorated workforce, energy savings and the chance to dodge the daily trek to the Pentagon.

"There's 26,000 people on average that work in the Pentagon and I think there were 6,000 parking spots at last report," he said.

Deborah M. Todd:  dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.
First Published May 10, 2012 12:00 am
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