NASA severs connection... (from sci.astro)

Irene Anne Eckstrand IAE at CU.NIH.GOV
Thu Sep 5 07:36:56 EST 1991

---For Your Information---
Date: Wed, 4 Sep 91 22:52 EDT
Subject: NASA severs connection... (from sci.astro)
To: kids-l at pittvms

Date: 3 Sep 91 22:05:01 GMT
From: edtjda at (Joe Abernathy)
Subject: NASA severs connection on electronic mail linkup (Houston Chronicle)

{ This story appeared on Page 1A of the Houston Chronicle on Monday, Sept. 2,
 1991. Permission is granted for redistribution in the ACM Risks Digest,
 Patrick Townson's Telecom Digest, the newsgroup, Computer
 Underground Digest, and the interesting_people mailing list. Our thanks to
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NASA severs connection on electronic mail linkup.
By Joe Abernathy, Copyright 1991, Houston Chronicle

Although declaring the experiment a success, NASA has called a halt to a
project by which space shuttle astronauts briefly were linked with the nation's
computer networks through electronic mail.  The e-mail experiment, conducted
during the recent flight of Atlantis, was part of a larger effort to develop
computer and communications systems for the space station Freedom, which is to
be assembled during the late 1990s.  The National Aeronautics and Space
Administration cited unauthorized access as the reason for severing the network
connection, but NASA officials did not provide details.  The space agency
initially attempted to carry out the project in secrecy, but word leaked out on
the nation's computer networks. Details were closely guarded because of
concerns over malicious computer hacking and astronauts' privacy.

"Hello, Earth! Greetings from the STS-43 Crew! This is the first Applelink
from space. Having a GREAT time, wish you were here!" read the first message
home. It went from Atlantis astronauts Shannon Lucid and James Adamson to
Marcia Ivins, a shuttle communicator at Johnson Space Center.

It was the use of AppleLink -- a commercial electronic mail network connected
to the global computer matrix -- that apparently contained the seeds of
trouble.  When an AppleLink electronic mail address for the shuttle was
distributed online and then published in the Houston Chronicle, it generated
about 80 responses from well-wishers.

Although the address was created just for this purpose, the flight director
nearly pulled the plug on the project, according to Debra Muratore, the NASA
experiment manager. The project was concluded as scheduled and declared a
success.  But ultimately, it was decided, at least for now, to cease all
interaction with public computer networks. The decision eventually could mean
that NASA's premier research facility, the space station, may not have access
to its premier research communications tool, the NASA Science Internet -- the
space agency's portion of the vast Internet global computer network.

Electronic mail, which is becoming commonplace in offices, is simply the
transmission of messages via computers to one or more people, using electronic
addresses. Users linked to the right networks can send electronic messages or
other data to specific recipients nearly anywhere in the world -- and for a
short time, could send them to space.  "The problem was that the information
had gotten leaked prematurely. There was no problem with security," Muratore
said. Even previous to the leak of the addresss, however, the experiment was
structured in such a way that it was vulnerable to hackers, she acknowledged.
"As a result of this whole experience, at least my project plans never to use a
public (electronic) mail system again," she said.  Muratore indicated that the
space agency may explore other ways of providing "connectivity" --
communication between orbiting astronauts and NASA's broader collection of
computerized resources -- which will become increasingly important as the use
of computerized information grows.

The decision to sever the short-lived e-mail connection has drawn strong
criticism among computer security experts and other scientists, who charge that
NASA was attempting to design "security through obscurity."  "This is another
example of an ostrich-oriented protection policy -- stick your head in the sand
and pretend no one will find out what you know," wrote Peter G. Neumann,
moderator of the Association for Computing Machinery's RISKS Digest, a
respected online publication that assesses the risks posed by technology.
"Things like that don't stay 'secret' for very long."

NASA told Newsday, but would not confirm for the Chronicle, that more than 80
"unauthorized" messages from around the world were sent to the Atlantis address
-- which a source told the Chronicle was set up explicitly to handle public
requests for a shuttle e-mail address. Private addresses were used for the
actual experiments.  "The old 'authorization' paradox has reared its ugly head
again," wrote Neumann, who prepared a study for NASA on the security
requirements of the space station. " `Threatened by unauthorized e-mail,' eh?
Sending e-mail to someone REQUIRES NO AUTHORIZATION."

Muratore defended the use of secrecy as a security tool.  "I feel that that was
a viable option," she said. She said operators of AppleLink told NASA that it
was impossible to keep public e-mail from being sent to the on-orbit address,
so the only option was to try to keep it secret.

But network users questioned this viewpoint.  "Why is an e-mail system 'in
jeapordy' when it receives 80 messages? And what is an 'unauthorized user?' "
asked Daniel Fischer of the Max-Planck-Institut feur Radioastronomie, in Bonn,
Germany. "Once the system is linked up to the real world, it should expect to
receive real mail from everyone.  If NASA can't handle that, it really
shouldn't get into e-mail at all," added Fischer, writing in an online
discussion group composed of scientists involved with the space program.
"Consider that (heavy response) a success, NASA!"

The disposition of the electronic mail sent to Atlantis is still up in the air.
A Chronicle message was not acknowledged, and no one has reported receiving a

[Chronicle reporter Mark Carreau contributed to this report.]

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