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NASA 2011: hacked 13 times, highlights security failures?

NASA 2011: hacked 13 times, highlights security failures?

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NASA has admitted to 13 security breaches in 2011.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has admitted that 13 separate major network security breaches took place in 2011.

The agency's inspector, General Paul K Martin, told a Congressional panel last week that only $58 million of its $1.5 billion annual IT budget was spent on cybersecurity, and hackers managed to gain "full, functional control" of NASA's systems at the Jet Propulsion laboratory (JPL).

Martin's statement on Nasa's cybersecurity was submitted to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology's Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight. Apart from the 13 major breaches, 5,408 minor computer security incidents also took place between between 2010 and 2011.

Between 2009 and 2011, 48 agency mobile devices, such as unencrypted netbooks, were also reported lost or stolen.

Using IP addresses based in China, the cybercriminals managed to "compromise the accounts of the most privileged JPL users" in multiple attacks last year -- gaining over 150 employee credentials in the process.

The hackers also secured full system access, which allowed them to edit, copy or delete sensitive and confidential files as they pleased. User accounts could be created for JPL systems, uploading viral and hacking tools was made possible, and the hackers were able to modify system logs to hide their presence.

The separate incidents may not have only been focused on compromising the high-profile space organisation. Martin suggested that the attacks ranged from individuals testing their 'skill' at breaking the security measures to well-funded enterprises, and also the possibility of foreign intelligence services sponsoring attacks in an effort to further their own ends and objectives.

Although the inspector criticized certain aspects of NASA's investment within cybersecurity, he did note that investigations had resulted in "arrests and convictions of foreign nationals in China, Great Britain, Italy, Nigeria, Portugal, Romania, Turkey, and Estonia".

The statement highlights five issues that constitute NASA’s 'most serious challenges in the admittedly difficult task of protecting the Agency's information and systems from inadvertent loss or malicious theft':

  • Lack of full awareness of Agency-wide IT security posture.
  • Shortcomings in implementing a continuous monitoring approach to IT security.
  • Slow pace of encryption for NASA laptop computers and other mobile devices.
  • Ability to combat sophisticated cyber attacks.
  • Transition to cloud computing.

NASA spokesman Michael Cabbagehe said within a prepared statement, in relation to the testimony:

"NASA takes the issue of IT security very seriously, and at no point in time have operations of the International Space Station been in jeopardy due to a data breach."

The security breaches are currently under investigation, and NASA has said that it is working towards implementing security improvements that have been suggested within the report.

Image credit: NASA

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Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure