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Defense to spy on its own data

Amy Walters /

The Pentagon is draping its networks with technology that models in 3-D weaknesses lurking inside to show managers where threats are most likely to enter, according to a contractor hired for the project.

The patented Passive Vulnerability Scanner is one of several new surveillance systems that the Defense Information Systems Agency, the Pentagon’s information technology support arm, is delivering to military services and select intelligence agencies under a contract announced this week. The seven-year project valued at $39.8 million transitioned out of test mode in late 2011 and soon will be available with full functionality, according to developer Tenable Network Security.

Eventually, the scanner will be folded into the Defense Department’s ongoing “continuous monitoring” effort, which assesses the security of all IT assets in near real time, Pentagon officials told Nextgov.

Multiple layers of security are critical for a department where outsiders try hacking into networks, sometimes successfully, millions of times every day, Pentagon officials have said.

Continuous monitoring technologies probe computer devices, while passive scanning snoops on data flows. The real-time monitoring technique relies on an array of sensors and software that check for exploits at the endpoints of a system -- servers, laptops and other workstations. With the Passive Vulnerability Scanner, the Pentagon can sniff out signs of trouble without connecting to a specific end-user device, said Ron Gula, Tenable’s chief executive officer.

The tool explores the operating environment continuously, in the background, to sense the types of devices connected to a network, the kinds of software in those devices and the category of vulnerabilities inside, if any. A shift in the dynamic of network traffic will raise red flags.

“You need to do event analysis really fast, not just system analysis,” Gula said. The passive mechanism is particularly suited for mobile devices such as commercial tablets and smartphones, which are hard to scan, he added.

Under the contract, HP Enterprise Services will deploy Tenable’s technology, train Defense personnel and manage the project for DISA, according to HP.

“This capability will be incorporated into the DoD's continuous monitoring strategy,” said Kevin Dulany, risk management oversight division chief for the Defensewide Information Assurance Program, “but the system was not procured specifically for [continuous monitoring].”

A McAfee-engineered threat detector, called the Host-Based Security System, currently performs that job, by keeping constant tabs on peripherals.

At a large civilian agency, which Tenable could not disclose, the Passive Vulnerability Scanner found thousands of unidentified iPads connecting to the department’s network. Likely, one office sanctioned the use of the tablets without informing the security team. “They weren’t visible to the continuous monitoring program,” Gula said. “There was probably somebody out there in IT who knew exactly where the iPads were.”

The tool costs between $250,000 and $1.5 million upfront for the average civilian agency. Gula could not specify the price of the Pentagon’s version.

(Image via Amy Walters /

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