Judge Acts to Protect Indian Trust Fund from Hackersby Robert Gehrke, Associated Press
The Spokesman Review, December 6, 2001
Interior's system had no way of knowing if intruder had tinkered with information
WASHINGTON -- A judge acted Wednesday to protect hundreds of millions of dollars in a government-run trust fund for American Indians that has been found to be at risk of security breaches.
The emergency order came a day after a report detailed how easily a court-appointed investigator was able to hack into the accounting system at the Interior Department and manipulate financial data. The government computer system is essentially a bank that manages $500 million a year in royalties from land owned by 300,000 American Indians.
But U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth said that Interior's system had no firewalls to prevent intrusions, systems to detect hackers, or auditing methods to determine if account information had been manipulated.
"You don't expect a thief to leave a calling card?" Lamberth asked Justice Department attorney Matt Fader.
Fader said Interior Secretary Gale Norton had already ordered all Internet access to the system terminated while firewalls are installed.
"No computer system is ever entirely protected," Fader said.
But Lamberth went a step further, ordering any computer that could access the accounting system to be disconnected from the Internet to safeguard the trust money.
Plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit say the government has mismanaged royalties from 54 million acres of Indian land for more than a century, costing the beneficiaries more than $10 billion.
Almost two years ago, Lamberth ordered the Interior Department to overhaul its accounting system and demanded that the government piece together how much the beneficiaries are owed.
But attorneys for the plaintiffs pointed to the security failure as proof that the government is failing to comply with that order.
"We are talking about the cornerstone of the entire trust," attorney Dennis Gingold said. "A good trustee would shut the system down. We don't have a good trustee. We have a trustee who doesn't care about the trust beneficiaries."
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