Online data a gold mine for terrorists

IT's high-alert response overlooks corporate sites

The widespread availability of sensitive information on corporate Web sites appears to have been largely overlooked by IT and security managers responding this week to the Department of Homeland Security's warning of a heightened terrorist threat against the financial services sector.

Freely available on the Web, for example, are 3-D models of the exterior and limited portions of the interior of the Citigroup Inc. headquarters building in Manhattan -- one of the sites specifically named in the latest terror advisory issued by the DHS. Likewise, details of the Citigroup building's history of structural design weaknesses, including its susceptibility to toppling over in high winds, the construction of its central support column and the fire rating of the materials used in the building, are readily available on the Web.

A Citigroup spokeswoman declined to comment, referring the matter to the building owner, Boston Properties Inc.

Similarly, the Web site of the Chicago Board of Trade includes photographs of the facility's underground parking garages, floor plans of office suites and contact names and phone numbers for the telecommunications service providers that serve the building.

Maria Gemskie, a spokeswoman for the CBOT, said the company could not comment publicly about specific security precautions being put in place. But she stressed that "all aspects of security are taken very seriously and we are looking into [our Web content] as well."

Such information can be a gold mine for terrorists, security experts said. A senior intelligence official at the DHS, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the recent capture of al-Qaeda computer expert Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan in Pakistan yielded a computer filled with photographs and floor diagrams of buildings in the U.S. that terrorists may have been planning to attack.

"Not thinking through the security implications of some of the information put online can be a very dangerous mistake," said Amit Yoran, director of the National Cyber Security Division at the DHS. "The Pentagon has looked very closely at this issue, and certainly corporate America should do the same."

In fact, Yoran said the situation is serious enough that the DHS may need to look into publishing best-practices guidelines for companies to follow.

Eric Friedberg, managing director of New York-based security firm Stroz Friedberg LLC, said the warnings about sensitive Web site postings that his company took to the private sector two years ago have "fallen on deaf ears" (see story).

MacDonnell Ulsch, managing director of Janus Risk Management Inc. in Marlboro, Mass., said making this type of information available is inexcusable.

"It may make it easier for contractors and service providers to do their jobs, but the risk may exceed the benefit," said Ulsch. "A well-trained engineer can easily discern the greatest points of vulnerability in a building by analyzing the design. Making this information available is a fundamental mistake with deadly consequences."

According to Ulsch, what companies do or fail to do in response to a threat is a direct result of their understanding of the risk. Consequently, when companies are told to beware of terrorists driving truck bombs into or near their buildings, they deploy concrete barriers, he said.

And that seems to be exactly what has happened in the aftermath of the latest threat-level increase, with most firms focusing on redundancy and recovery while paying very little attention to countersurveillance and information control.

New York Stock Stock Exchange spokesman Raymond Pellecchia, for example, said the perimeter around the building has been "beefed up" but so far that is "the principle change" that has taken place since the alert level changed. "We've long had a very hardened security profile," he said.

Sylvain Pendaries, CIO at CDC Ixis North America Inc. in Manhattan, said previous terror alerts have loosened the purse strings of executives in his company, enabling him to complete disaster recovery plans. CDC Ixis in February completed an upgrade to its communications network, moving from two T3 lines to a Sonet ring that connects sites in New York and New Jersey at OC48 port speeds.

While an increased focus on disaster recovery is necessary, Yoran said the lack of focus on blocking cybersurveillance activities stems from a disconnect between the terrorist alert system and the role of cybersecurity in homeland defense. "In practical terms, tuning a firewall, changing parameters on antivirus software and advocating more frequent password changes don't really line up with the different threat levels," he said.

Michelle Petrovich, a spokeswoman for Robert Liscouski, assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the DHS, said that while companies have the right to post whatever information they want, the DHS encourages all companies to add Web site reviews to their list of preventive security measures.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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