The supposedly confidential State Department memos ('cables' in the quaint, antiquated parlance of diplomats) oozing out in dribs and drabs this week prompts many questions, but for the IT professional none is more acute than "how could something like this even happen?" This marks the third time in the last six months that the Web's premier whistleblower outlet has release dsensitive government reports. Admittedly, most of these aren't highly classified (and none are "top secret), nor even all that surprising, but the fact that a Private First Class can surf an isolated DoD network designed for the secure transmission of classified information (The SIPRNet or Secret IP Router Network) trolling for juicy tidbits, much less walk off with gigabytes of data is shocking given the security technology available to the government, or any decent-sized enterprise for that matter.For those not familiar with the gory details (two good accounts are here and here ) the PFC in question, Bradley Manning, had the proper security clearance for accessing SIPRNet and, in voyeuristic fashion, set about searching for interesting nuggets. He hit the jackpot with a video showing an Apache helicopter mowing down a bunch of presumed Iraqi insurgents, two of whom turned out to be journalists along with two children. This led him on a mission of vacuuming up pretty much everything he could lay his hands on. While SIPRNet isn't connected to the public Internet, the PCs on it had perfectly functional CD drives and USB ports. In an infamous quote, Manning says "I would come in with music on a CD-RW labeled with something like 'Lady Gaga,' erase the music then write a compressed split file." He adds, ""If you had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months, what would you do?" Manning asked. Apparently copy everything you can get your hands on.
Back to IT's culpability. The obvious low-tech solution to this problem is removing the CD drives and gluing the USB ports on every PC connected to SIPRNet (with the possible exception of a few highly controlled machines used by administrators), not allowing connecting with personal laptops and insuring no wireless LANs bridge to the network. Yet even these simple measures might not be foolproof -- a stray machine with Bluetooth or a USB port hidden on a back panel could cause holes. Here's where IT security managers need to apply a little technology like DLP software. The government is very good at classifying information (one of the foundations of an effective DLP implementation), but apparently not at building controls around the classifications. Having automated controls over how State Department memos labeled "SECRET NOFORN", meaning they're never meant to be shown to non-US citizens, are treated -- who can view, forward or modify them -- seems like a no brainer. Actually, most decent DLP systems can perform content analysis to lock down material that somehow evaded proper formal classification.
I suspect that the government's painful lesson will be a powerful wake up call for IT managers to examine their own content security and implement procedures and technology to prevent their own Web-enabled embarrassment. Unfortunately, it may be too late for some since Wikileak founder Julian Assange teases that he already has the goods on a large U.S. financial company.