Corporate websites overlooked as potential terrorist targets

The widespread availability of sensitive information on corporate Web sites appears to have been largely overlooked by information technology and security managers who responded to the US Department of Homeland Security's latest warning of a heightened terrorist threat against the financial services sector.

Terrorists' use of the Internet for communication, training, and propaganda has been acknowledged. And Richard Clarke, while head of the White House cyberdefense office, had warned about terrorists gathering useful information online.

Building Specs Found

Freely available on the Web, for example, are 3-D models of the exterior and limited portions of the interior of the Citigroup headquarters building in Manhattan--one of the sites specifically named in the latest terror advisory issued by the DHS. Likewise, details of the Citigroup building's history of structural design weaknesses, including its susceptibility to toppling over in high winds, the construction of its central support column and the fire rating of the materials used in the building, are readily available on the Web.

A Citigroup spokesperson declines to comment, referring the matter to the building owner, Boston Properties.

Similarly, the Web site of the Chicago Board of Trade includes photographs of the facility's underground parking garages, floor plans of office suites, and contact names and phone numbers for the telecommunications service providers that serve the building.

Maria Gemskie, a spokesperson for the Chicago Board of Trade, says the exchange cannot comment publicly about specific security precautions being put in place. But she stresses that "all aspects of security are taken very seriously and we are looking into (our Web content) as well."

But information like that posted on the exchange's Web site can be a gold mine for terrorists, security experts say. A senior intelligence official at the DHS, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the recent capture of al-Qaeda computer expert Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan in Pakistan yielded a computer filled with photographs and floor diagrams of buildings in the U.S. that terrorists may have been planning to attack.

"Not thinking through the security implications of some of the information put online can be a very dangerous mistake," says Amit Yoran, director of the National Cyber Security Division at the DHS. "The Pentagon has looked very closely at this issue, and certainly corporate America should do the same." In fact, Yoran said the situation is serious enough that the DHS may need to look into publishing best-practices guidelines for companies to follow.

Unheeded Warnings

Eric Friedberg, managing director of New York-based security firm Stroz Friedberg, says the warnings about sensitive Web site postings that his company took to the private sector two years ago have "fallen on deaf ears."

MacDonnell Ulsch, managing director of Janus Risk Management in Marlboro, Massachusetts, says making this type of information available is inexcusable.

"It may make it easier for contractors and service providers to do their jobs, but the risk may exceed the benefit," Ulsch says. "A well-trained engineer can easily discern the greatest points of vulnerability in a building by analyzing the design. Making this information available is a fundamental mistake with deadly consequences."

According to Ulsch, what companies do or fail to do in response to a threat is a direct result of their understanding of the risk. Consequently, when companies are told to beware of terrorists driving truck bombs into or near their buildings, they deploy concrete barriers, he says.

And that seems to be exactly what has happened in the aftermath of the latest threat-level increase, with most firms focusing on redundancy and recovery while paying very little attention to countersurveillance and information control.

Sylvain Pendaries, CIO at CDC Ixis North America in Manhattan, says previous terror alerts have loosened the purse strings of executives in his company, enabling him to complete disaster recovery plans. CDC Ixis in February completed an upgrade to its communications network, moving from two T3 lines to a Sonet ring that connects sites in New York and New Jersey at OC48 port speeds.

While an increased focus on disaster recovery is necessary, Yoran says the lack of focus on blocking cybersurveillance activities stems from a disconnect between the terrorist alert system and the role of cybersecurity in homeland defense. "In practical terms, tuning a firewall, changing parameters on antivirus software and advocating more frequent password changes don't really line up with the different threat levels," he says.

Michelle Petrovich, a spokesperson for Robert Liscouski, assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the DHS, says that while companies have the right to post whatever information they want, the DHS encourages all companies to add Web site reviews to their list of preventive security measures.