Earth to NASA...

NASA's security troubles shouldn't surprise you. The signs of trouble were in place when I interviewed one of the agency's IT guys five years ago.

I was working for TechTarget's back then, and was writing a series called "Access (out of) control." As part of the project I interviewed William Likens, chief of application development and technology for NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

Likens left the agency shortly after the interview, but at the time we talked he spoke of a decentralized and fragmented network without much interfacing or centralization of systems from one division to the next.

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To make matters worse, he told me, he had not seen a groundswell of support among managers to change things. One of the things he said floored me:

"We know when someone employed by NASA has left, but when you are dealing with contractors, it's much harder to know when they are gone," he said. It's a considerable security risk, he said, because people often retain access to systems, sometimes privileged access, after their work at NASA ends. It means orphaned accounts could be exploited not only to gain network access, but also to leverage sensitive network resources.

To be fair, that interview is just a snapshot in time. Likens had also told me about increasing efforts to tighten up access control despite the resistance, and back then you didn't see the paranoia over potential data breaches that you see today.

NASA ramped up its security efforts in the following years, but I always wondered if it would be enough.

Apparently not, according to a report from my colleague Tim Greene over at Network World. He writes:

Six NASA servers exposed to the Internet had critical vulnerabilities that could have endangered Space Shuttle, International Space Station and Hubble Telescope missions -- flaws that would have been found by a security oversight program the agency agreed to last year but hasn't yet implemented, according to a report by the agency's inspector general.

NASA's CIO Linda Cureton says she has patched the vulnerabilities, but IG Paul Martin found that NASA still has no ongoing program for spotting and correcting similar problems as they arise and is giving itself until the end of September just to come up with a plan, according to the report titled "Inadequate Security Practices Expose Key NASA Network to Cyber Attack." The deadline for the plan is Sept. 30.Sign up today.

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Sobering stuff, indeed.It's fortunate that the inspector general flagged these problems before something tragic happened.Let's hope the agency gets a handle on its vulnerabilities before it's too late. --Bill Brenner

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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