Critical NASA network was open to internet attack

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.

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The six vulnerable servers were associated with IT projects that control spacecraft or contain critical NASA information, the report says. The audit also found other servers that exposed encryption keys, encrypted passwords and user-account information, all of which could enable attackers to gain unauthorized network access. The report didn't assess the agencywide network that isn't directly used for missions.

"These deficiencies occurred because NASA had not fully assessed and mitigated risks to the network and had not assigned responsibility for IT security oversight to ensure the network was adequately protected," the report says. "A security breach of a moderate- or high-impact system or project on this key network could severely disrupt NASA operations or result in the loss of sensitive data."

One server was found vulnerable to FTP bounce attacks, which if exploited, "could have significantly disrupted NASA's space flight operations and stolen sensitive data," the report says. Other servers weren't securely configured, exposing the encryption keys, encrypted passwords and user account lists to attackers.

The IG says NASA didn't know about these problems but could have if it performed broad risk assessment, part of the agreed-to security program. "As a result, NASA's Agency-wide mission network was vulnerable to a variety of cyber attacks with the potential for devastating adverse effects on the mission operations the network supports," the report says.

In addition to the oversight program on Internet-connected servers, NASA's CIO promises she will start a pilot program by Aug. 21 for spotting risks on the rest of NASA's networks that don't have Internet connectivity.

The IG performed port scans using Nmap and manually verified open ports. It also performed NESSUS vulnerability scans.

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

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