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Good IT News, Bad IT News at Department of Justice

The annual report by the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) on the state of IT in the DOJ says that the FBI has made progress in implementing its Sentinel system. The report notes that, "Over the past several years, the FBI has instituted better IT management processes and controls through its Life Cycle Management Directive. Continuity in both the FBIâ''s CIO position and its project management staff â'' a huge problem in failed previous efforts â'' also has stabilized. In addition, all of the FBIâ''s IT activities have been centralized under the FBI CIO, who now controls all agency IT spending.â''

However, the IG goes on to note: "The Department also faces the challenge of assuring that the more than $2 billion it receives annually for the Departmentâ''s IT systems is being spent effectively. A June 2007 OIG report examined the Departmentâ''s inventory of IT systems and identified 38 major IT systems estimated by system mangers to cost over $15 billion through 2012. The OIGâ''s audit found that the cost information the Department provides on its IT systems to Congress, OMB, and senior management within the Department is unreliable. Specifically, IT system cost reporting within the Department is fragmented, uses inconsistent methodologies, and lacks control procedures necessary to ensure that cost data for IT systems is accurate and complete."

The OIG also said there was big trouble with the Integrated Wireless Network (IWN), a $5 billion joint project among the Department of Justice, the DHS, and the Department of Treasury that is intended to address federal law enforcement requirements to communicate across agencies, allow interoperability with state and local law enforcement agencies, and meet federal mandates to use federal radio frequency spectrum more efficiently. The OIG concluded that, "the IWN project was at a high risk of failure. Despite over 6 years of development and more than $195 million in funding, the OIG concluded that the IWN project does not appear to be on the path to providing the intended seamless interoperable communications system. The causes for the high risk of project failure include uncertain and disparate funding mechanisms for IWN, the fractured partnership between the Department and DHS on IWN, and the lack of an effective governing structure for the project."

It's a good thing, I guess, that you can't IWN them all.

Subtle Chip or Apllication Math Errors Can Lead to Big Problems

Over the weekend, the New Yorks Times ran an article on a potential IT security problem posed by errors in microprocessor chips such as the Intel Pentium error of a few years back or the recent Microsoft Excel spreadsheet bug.

Adi Shamir, a professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and one of the three designers of the RSA public key algorithm, circulated a research note about how an attacker could exploit an undetected subtle math error and make breaking public key cryptography possible.

The Times article notes that Mr. Shamir believes that "if an intelligence organization discovered a math error in a widely used chip, then security software on a PC with that chip could be 'trivially broken with a single chosen message.' Executing the attack would require only knowledge of the math flaw and the ability to send a 'poisoned' encrypted message to a protected computer. It would then be possible to compute the value of the secret key used by the targeted system. With this approach, 'millions of PCâ''s can be attacked simultaneously, without having to manipulate the operating environment of each one of them individually.' "

It isn't believed that this technique is being used - yet. It still seems easier to poison PC components themselves like hard drives at the factory, which recently happened to Seagate Maxtor drives made in Thailand and which were pre-loaded with password stealing Trojan horses.

Air Canada Computer Problems

Air Canada said there was a communications error between the airline's central reservation and check-in system affecting airports across Canada beginning at 0430 Friday morning. The system-wide problem affected both international and domestic flights with the worst delays experienced during the peak morning travel hours.

The delays weren't as bad as the recent problems at LAX.

Scarce Computer Science Students at Cambridge

A small news item appeared in the London Guardian this past week about how Cambridge University in England is desperate for computer science applicants. Cambridge is receiving only 40% as many applicants that it did in 2000. Professors there blame the drop on the perception that computer science students are "geeky" and that the best jobs are being outsourced to India and China.

FBI Virtual Case File Opportunity Cost?

A Lebanese-born CIA officer and former FBI agent Nada Nadim Prouty pleaded guilty this week to charges that, among other things (like submitting forged documents to obtain American citizenship) she illegally sought classified information from FBI computers in September 2002 and June 2003 concerning the Islamic group Hezbollah.

According to the New York Times, the agent's sister and brother-in-law "attended a fund-raising event in Lebanon in August 2002 at which the keynote speaker was Sheikh Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah. Sheikh Fadlallah has been designated by the United States government as a terrorist leader." She checked the FBI computers to see what information law enforcement had on relatives, as well as herself.

It is interesting to speculate whether Prouty would have dared to check the FBI files in June 2003 if the Virtual Case File was visibly on track to be completed on-time (December 2003 or June 2004, take your pick), and or whether her 2002 or 2003 snooping would have also been discovered in 2004 before she went to the CIA, not 2007.

Just Some Neat Earth Rise/Set Pictures

If you haven't seen them yet, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) released some great HD pictures of earth rise and earth set as seen from the moon.

Back to Future - A Bit Faster Now

The British press (here and here) is reporting on Gordon Brown's government desire for building "Fortress Britain" after it "unveiled a succession of security measures at airports, railway stations, sports venues and other public places."

By summer 2009, the UK government wants every person entering or leaving Britain to provide 53 pieces of travel information, including credit card information, travel contact numbers of where you are staying, travel plans, email addresses, car registrations being used in travel, the number of pieces of luggage taken, baggage tag numbers, all changes to the travel itinerary, etc.

Furthermore, passengers will have the privilege of paying a fee to the travel organizations who are going to collect and send all of this information to the UK government, and a UK government surtax to pay for its use and storage. But what price is your security, eh?

The UK government hasn't decided (yet) to require that the travel information be provided three days before the intended date of travel, like the US is contemplating. It does appear, however, that both the US and Britain are in a competition to discouraging foreigners from visiting and their own citizens from leaving.

Given the amount of information planned to be captured and stored indefinitely via this scheme and all the others in Big Brother Britain, maybe the smart thing to do is to start buying stock in database, data storage, and business continuity management companies.

Australian Super Seasprite Software Problems - A Record?

Australian pals of mine clued me in on the latest program problems with the Australian Department of Defence's Super Seasprite upgrade program. Begun in 1997, the program was meant to upgrade the electronics and some other bits of 11 of these 1960s-era helicopters (Defence calls them "mature helicopters") over five years for an original cost of AU$745 million; the cost to complete is now estimated to range around AU$1.5 billion. Up until a few weeks ago, the Australian Defence Department said their Super Seasprites would become operational in 2008, but that date has now been slipped to 2011.

Software problems related to the Seasprite's avionics and flight control software have been at the root of many of the delays and cost overruns. The problems have been so severe that last year the helo was grounded because, according to Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, "You could not have 100 per cent confidence in the software program that supports the pilot flying the helicopter to 100 per cent safety."

According to Department of Defence's Portfolio Budget Statement 2007-2008, "The main sustainment risks to the Super Seasprite include the automatic flight control system issue, mission computer shortcomings, and a lack of customer confidence in the platform brought about by the extended flight suspension and ongoing technical issues." Oh, that's all?

The latest schedule slip was due to software testing and integration problems to the helo's mission system software. IT mercy rule, anyone?

I don't recall any other defense program of any nation being delivered 9 years late due mostly to software problems (other than maybe the Strategic Defense Initiative). Anyone have some other candidates?

Change Definition of Privacy: Government Official

The Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, Dr. Donald Kerr, thinks, "Too often, privacy has been equated with anonymity; and itâ''s an idea that is deeply rooted in American culture."

That's apparently no longer a valid or reasonable idea. "In our interconnected and wireless world, anonymity â'' or the appearance of anonymity â'' is quickly becoming a thing of the past. ... Protecting anonymity isnâ''t a fight that can be won."

In addition, "We need to move beyond the construct that equates anonymity with privacy and focus more on how we can protect essential privacy in this interconnected environment...Instead, privacy, I would offer, is a system of laws, rules, and customs with an infrastructure of Inspectors General, oversight committees, and privacy boards on which our intelligence community commitment is based and measured."

So privacy means faith in government bureaucracy.

Except, of course, when these privacy laws, rules and customs get in the way of safety. Then privacy must give way.

But not to worry for, "Our commitment to safety and privacy are nothing new to us and they are values that we must continue to protect as we learn to do our intelligence job better."

In other words, the intelligence community is committed to protecting us and our way of life - which just needs to change to make it easier for them to get information on us to protect us from - us?

Sounds logical to me.

More on this can be read here.


Risk Factor

IEEE Spectrum's risk analysis blog, featuring daily news, updates and analysis on computing and IT projects, software and systems failures, successes and innovations, security threats, and more.

Willie D. Jones
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