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Feds urge secrecy over network outages
Kevin Poulsen, SecurityFocus 2004-06-23

Giving the public too many details about significant network service outages could present cyberterrorists with a "virtual road map" to targeting critical infrastructures, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which this month urged regulators to keep such information secret.

At issue is an FCC proposal that would require telecom companies to report significant outages of high-speed data lines or wireless networks to the commission. The plan would rewrite regulations that currently require phone companies to file a publicly-accessible service disruption report whenever they experience an outage that effects at least 30,000 telephone customers for 30 minutes or more. Enacted in the wake of the June 1991 AT&T long-distance crash, the FCC credits the rule with having reversed a trend of increased outages on the phone network, as telecom companies used the disclosures to develop best practices and learn from each others' mistakes.

The commission is hoping for similar results on the wireless and data networks that have become integral to the U.S. economy and emergency response capability. The proposal would expand the landline reporting requirement to wireless services, and generally measure the impact of a telecom outage by the number of "user minutes" lost, instead of the number of customers affected.

It would also require telecom and satellite companies to start issuing reports when high-speed data lines suffer significant outages: specifically, whenever an outage of at least 30 minutes duration affects at least 1,350 "DS3 minutes." A DS3 line carries 45 megabits per second, the equivalent of 28 DS1 or T1 lines.

The reports would include details like the geographic area of the outage, the direct causes of the incident, the root cause, whether not there was malicious activity involved, the name and type of equipment that failed, and the steps taken to prevent a reoccurrence, among other things.

To the Department of Homeland Security, that's a recipe for disaster. "While this information is critical to identify and mitigate vulnerabilities in the system, it can equally be employed by hostile actors to identify vulnerabilities for the purpose of exploiting them," the DHS argued in an FCC filing this month. "Depending on the disruption in question, the errant disclosure to an adversary of this information concerning even a single event may present a grave risk to the infrastructure."

If the FCC is going to mandate reporting, the DHS argued, it should channel the data to a more circumspect group: the Telecom ISAC (Information Sharing and Analysis Center), an existing voluntary clearinghouse for communications-related vulnerability information, whose members include several government agencies and all the major communications carriers. Data exchanged within the Telecom-ISAC is protected from public disclosure.

"[T]he ultimate success of our critical infrastructure protection effort depends, in large part, not merely on having the necessary information, but on having it available when and where it is most needed," the DHS argues.

The FCC hasn't ruled on the matter. Telecom companies are generally against the proposed new reporting requirements, arguing that the industry's voluntary efforts are sufficient.


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