Stolen laptop held ISS commands, NASA inspector reports

A laptop was taken from NASA in March 2011 that contained the formulas used to control the International Space Station, an internal investigation has revealed.

The space agency's inspector general, testifying before lawmakers Wednesday afternoon, said the notebook computer was not encrypted.

"The March 2011 theft of an unencrypted NASA notebook computer resulted in the loss of the algorithms used to command and control the International Space Station," said NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin in his written testimony.

During 2010 and 2011, NASA reported 5,408 computer security incidents that resulted in a loss of more than $7 million, Martin said. The upshot: "significant disruption to mission operations" and "the theft of export-controlled and otherwise sensitive data," he told a House Science, Space and Technology Committee investigations panel.

The hackers ranged from people showing off their skills to possibly foreign spies. Martin's office is still probing an intrusion that went undetected for a period of time at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory that involved China-based network addresses. In that episode, the culprits gained total control over systems at the lab -- operator of the Deep Space Network. They had the ability to alter files, add user accounts and install hacking tools to steal staff credentials. The attackers could then hide their tracks by changing system logs, Martin testified.

While the number of incidents may seem jarring, he cautioned that the comparative frequency of cases at other agencies is unknown. The NASA inspector general is the only IG that regularly tallies cyber events, he said.

For years, the space agency has struggled to tighten information security -- an institutional problem that some overseers attribute to the chief information officer's lack of authority. The top IT executive supervises administrative systems but has no power over mission-critical systems supporting NASA's aeronautics, science, and space programs, including the Deep Space Network.