Friday, December 10, 2010

WikiLeaks fallout: military bans thumb drives

Fallout from the latest WikiLeaks releases continues, as the military has issued a "Cyber Control Order" to troops to immediately stop use of removable media such as thumb drives, CD's, DVD's and other portable and removable media that could be used to transfer sensitive information. The penalty for violating the order: court martial.

Wired's Danger Room obtained the Dec. 3 order, which came from Maj. Gen. Richard Webber (no, not from "Grey's Anatomy"!), and directs those under his command at Air Force Network Operations to "immediately cease use of removable media on all systems, servers, and stand alone machines residing on SIPRNET," or Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, the Defense Department’s secret network. Wired reports "similar directives have gone out to the military’s other branches."

The order goes on to say:
Unauthorized data transfers routinely occur on classified networks using removable media and are a method the insider threat uses to exploit classified information. To mitigate the activity, all Air Force organizations must immediately suspend all SIPRNET data transfer activities on removable media.

An internal memo came out in August suggesting that the Pentagon disable computers with classified information from writing to thumb drives and other types of removable media. But the move most likely arose to prevent others from doing what Army intelligence officer PFC Bradley Manning is accused of doing: downloading hundreds of thousands of documents and a controversial 2007 video showing an Iraq-based helicopter attack that killed a dozen people, and giving it to WikiLeaks.

The would-be whistle-blower has been in custody since July, when he was charged with the improper acquisition of that video, which was released in April. While the city of Berkeley wants to declare Manning a hero, his own confidants have turned on him. A former hacker exposed him to the Army after Manning bragged about his actions, wrestling with the decision until he concluded Manning's leaks were a threat to national security.

Manning, in an Internet chat with that former hacker Adrian Lamo, revealed his signature method of stealthy spywork: he'd use a recordable CD to download data from SIPRENET. Lady Gaga has her role to play in this, as Manning said he "listened and lip-synced to Lady Gaga's Telephone while exfiltratrating possibly the largest data spillage in american (sic) history."

The pressure to clamp down within the government has only increased with the recent releases of Iraq war logs and U.S. State Department diplomatic cables, which Manning is also under suspicion of obtaining. The besieged WikiLeaks has been hit on multiple fronts: ditched on hosting and donations by Amazon, PayPal and Visa, while founder Julian Assange is detained in jail.

A military source spoke to Wired about how the ban might hamper military operations, which sometimes depend on the transfer of information from one computer disconnected from the network (as is often the case with computers with classified info) to another. That source told Wired, "They were asking us to build homes before. Now they’re taking away our hammers."

It's not the first time this type of removable media has been banned in the military; two years ago a ban was enacted to combat a worm that had infected thousands of computers, an attack that was called "the most significant breach of U.S. military computers ever." The ban was lifted in February.

This MSNBC FAQ gives you all the background you need to know to catch up with the plethora of WikiLeaks news, which is as intimidating in volume as the documents it releases.

By Athima Chansanchai

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