Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Telecommuting: You, Me, Hacker Makes Three? It's Up to Employees at Home to Preserve Defense Department Security, Experts Say

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Telecommuting: You, Me, Hacker Makes Three? It's Up to Employees at Home to Preserve Defense Department Security, Experts Say

Article excerpt

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.

Sean 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. …

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