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Source: eWeek.com

Posted on December 14, 2010

Personnel at NASA failed to remove data from obsolete computers before selling or discarding them, according to a NASA Office of Inspector General audit report released December 8.

Titled "Preparing for the Space Shuttle Program's Retirement," the audit focused on the disposal procedures for shuttle-related processing and information technology equipment that contain sensitive information about space shuttle operations and maintenance.

The audit looked at four NASA facilities -- Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Johnson Space Center in Texas, Ames Research Center in California and Langley Research Center in Virginia. Breaches were found at all four facilities, according the report.

During the course of the audit, inspectors found 14 computers still containing data out of a sample of 730 pieces of IT equipment that NASA was disposing. The auditors also found one computer being prepared for sale that still contained shuttle technology data that were subject to export controls under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations.

"Our review found serious breaches in NASA's IT security practices that could lead to the improper release of sensitive information related to the Space Shuttle and other NASA programs," NASA Inspector General Paul Martin said in a statement.

Any electronic storage device that has ever contained NASA information must be "sanitized" before being reassigned, transferred or discarded, according to NASA's Procedural Requirements. Sanitation requires removing data from the device by overwriting, degaussing and/or destroying the device so that it is impossible (or nearly so) to recover the data. After sanitizing, the devices have to pass a validation test to confirm the process was successful, according to the requirements.

While many hard drives passed the sanitation verification test prior to being sold, auditors found several instances of drives being sold despite failing the tests, according to the report. In one case, 10 computers from the Kennedy Center were put up for sale even though they'd failed sanitation verification testing. Also at Kennedy, there were four computers being prepared for sale, despite clearly being marked that they'd failed. It was one of these computers that still contained shuttle technology data, according to the report.

Although the hard drives were being removed and destroyed at Langley Center before the computers were released to the public, personnel neglected to properly account for the removed drives, the auditors found. "Most concerning" was the fact that at Kennedy Center the removed drives were kept in "an unsecured dumpster accessible to the public," said the report.

Johnson Space Center and Ames Research Center were not conducting any verification tests to ensure the drives were sanitized, according to the audit. At the Kennedy Space Center, the drives were tested by a third-party contractor, but appropriate managers were not being notified properly when devices failed verification tests. The third-party testing company labeled the failed drives before returning them, but "despite clear markings indicating that the computers had failed verification testing, no one took action to remove the remaining data from the computers or to prevent their sale," according to the report.

The Kennedy, Johnson and Ames centers were all using unapproved sanitizing software, according to the report.

"During our audit, we discovered significant weaknesses in the sanitisation and disposal processes for IT equipment," the auditors wrote in the report.

The audit also found that NASA was selling computers on which their IP addresses were prominently displayed. While the addresses themselves are not considered sensitive information, it does provide hackers with clues on what to target when attacking a NASA network.

Noting that many of the IT and property management personnel were not familiar with the sanitization policy, the inspector general's office was "troubled" that the NASA chief information officer did "not reflect the sense of urgency we believe is required," according to the report.

In response to recommendations about reviewing and correcting existing procedures, Linda Cureton, NASA's CIO, said NASA's information disposal policy will be updated and new guidance produced by the third quarter of the fiscal year of 2011, according to the report. The auditors said the deadline for this action is not timely enough and the promised actions insufficient to address the issues.

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