Live security tests at Commerce subdivision 'confirm our worst fears'

Live security tests at Commerce subdivision 'confirm our worst fears'
© Greg Nash

Undercover agents breached the physical security of the National Institute of Standards and Technology 15 out of 15 times, House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said Wednesday during a hearing on the institute's cybersecurity.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) ran the testing at the committee's urging and presented a full report, including videotapes of the test, to the committee before the hearing. 

"Their findings are alarming and confirmed our worst fears," said Smith. "NIST is a sieve."

NIST, a division of the Commerce Department, conducts research on everything from voting machines to nuclear reactors to developing federal standards. It has campuses in both Maryland and Colorado. 

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While the full report was not released to the public over security concerns, the public report mentions a variety of problems in the security policy at NIST. Those include poor training of security experts and scientists and a security strategy giving some responsibilities to the Commerce Department and other responsibilities to NIST.

While the bifurcated security structure is required by statute and can only be changed by Congress, the GAO report discusses poor integration between the two branches.

NIST and the Department of Commerce have accepted every recommendation given by the report.

The specifically tested security vulnerabilities are being withheld, but the committee is working to get the videos released.

The GAO deferred discussing whether its investigators had access to either computers that could be infected with malware or labs. But, a GAO representative noted, it would be reasonable to assume, given that NIST buildings largely exist to host laboratories and offices, that this would be the case. 

The House Science Committee first took interest in NIST security in 2015, when a meth lab that was run by a former NIST security employee out of an unused lab exploded. In 2016 an intruder was found wandering through the NIST campus.