Security Weaknesses Threaten Nation's Air Traffic Systems, GAO Says

Sep 26, 2005 (03:09 PM EDT)

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Congressional investigators identified significant security weaknesses in the nation's air traffic control information systems, weaknesses which threaten the systems' integrity, confidentiality, and availability.

In a 37-page report issued Monday, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, also contends the Federal Aviation Administration systems contain weaknesses in controls that are designed to prevent, limit, and detect access to these systems.

The agency hasn't adequately managed its networks, software updates, user accounts and passwords, and user privileges, nor has it consistently logged security-relevant events, says the report, requested by House Government Reform Committee chairman Tom Davis, R-Va.

Other information-security controls, including physical security, background investigations, segregation of duties, and system changes, also exhibited weaknesses, increasing the risk that unauthorized users could breach the FAA's air-traffic control systems, potentially disrupting aviation operations.

In oral comments to the GAO, FAA CIO Daniel Mehan says problems raised by the GAO in three individual systems the auditors examined aren't necessarily indicative of the security posture of the air traffic control system as a whole. Still, the GAO says, FAA officials acknowledged these weaknesses, but said the possibilities for unauthorized access were limited, given that the systems are in part custom-built and that they run on older equipment that employs special-purpose operating systems, proprietary communication interfaces, and custom-built software.

"Nevertheless, the proprietary features of these systems cannot fully protect them from attacks by disgruntled current or former employees who are familiar with these features, nor will they keep out more sophisticated hackers," writes Gregory Wilshusen, GAO information-security-issues director.

The FAA hasn't fully implemented its information-security program to help ensure that effective controls were established and maintained. Although the agency has initiatives under way to improve its information security, the GAO contends, further efforts are needed.

Weaknesses that must be addressed include outdated security plans, inadequate security-awareness training, inadequate system-testing and -evaluation programs, limited security-incident-detection capabilities, and shortcomings in providing service continuity for disruptions in operations.

"Until [the] FAA has resolved these issues," Wilshusen says, "the information-security weaknesses that GAO has identified will likely persist."