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No Internet Access for Students

Learning derailed by computer disconnect

WASHINGTON - A third court order to disconnect the Department of Interior from the Internet to protect IIM account holders' security has also affected BIA administered schools across the nation.

On March 15, students found themselves without access to research data, library information, communication with parents and information on college loans.

U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth issued the third injunction that separated the DOI and BIA from the Internet because the department refused to work with Special Master Alan Balaran to fix lapses in security. The department admitted it had problems, but no progress was made to repair any potential security breach.

Lamberth acknowledged Interior and other agencies would suffer hardship and inconvenience during the disconnect, but that the hardship was outweighed by potential alterations or destruction of IIM accounts by unauthorized access.

"The interest of the 300,000 plus current beneficiaries of the individual Indian trust outweigh the potential inconvenience of those parties that would otherwise have access to Interior's services," Lamberth wrote.

He ordered all IT systems within the Department of Interior, including the BIA and all the schools it controls to disconnect. The hardship caused to the schools has drawn criticism from some congressional leaders.

Lamberth puts the responsibility squarely on the DOI for not cooperating with the court. "Interior brought this injunction upon themselves," Lamberth stated. Interior, he wrote in his memorandum, entered its plan for reorganizing Internet technology in 2001 and asked for a special master and the reconnection of the system was working. But every government agency has given Interior an "F" on its IT security.

The BIA has control of 184 schools across the country that are connected to a system called EdNet. Dan Dubray, spokesperson for the DOI, said the schools are separate from the trust data.

"We have some letters that express dismay over this. In fact we are dismayed also," Dubray said.

The DOI filed a motion seeking an emergency stay of execution on Lamberth's order.

BIA officials at Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe school system said that it did not have any way to connect to the trust accounts through the Internet.

Haskell University was in the midst of mid-term testing. This made it difficult for those students who used the school's Internet system to access research material for term papers that were due. Many students at that level rely on the University's system.

This shutdown came at a time when students were applying for financial aid for next semester and all of the applications are done online. The library catalog system is connected to a consortium of libraries and now students have to rely on the expertise of librarians to locate material.

And for finding a way to connect to the internet through other than the BIA system, the answer was no. "We were ordered to not circumvent the order by finding another means to connect," Lori Tapahonso, spokeswoman for the University said.

Minority Leader, Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. entered the fray and criticized the Department of Interior for its inactions to solve the problem of IIM account access. He sent a letter to Secretary of Interior Gale Norton criticizing the department for not isolating the BIA schools from its computer system.

"These students should not be penalized for the failure of your Department to adequately protect information about Indian trust accounts, or for your Department's continued inability to resolve the historical mismanagement of Indian trust accounts," Daschle wrote.

In his letter he indicated his frustration over the department's lack of effort in finding a workable solution to the trust dispute and mentioned that Interior dedicates more resources to preventing the plaintiffs in Cobell v. Norton from receiving justice.

"Native American schoolchildren should not be the victims of the Department's continued unwillingness to protect the assets of Indian trust account holders," Daschle said.

Dubray said the DOI had made changes in the system. He said there were two firewalls that cost tens of millions of dollars that have secured the trust data.

"This department has been hardening the parameter and is the most secure in the government. We know it can never be 100 percent secure. No one can argue that we worked with the best professionals in the government to secure this system. We feel certain the trust systems are secure," Dubray said.

Keith Harper, attorney in the Cobell case, claimed the Department of Interior said the government did not dispute it had security problems, but also asserted that is shouldn't have connected the schools to its Internet and computer system.

"Interior has an obligation to do the right thing, but it refuses to do the right thing," Harper said.

Harper said that state schools are not connected to state computers. He added that Interior has ignored offers to "get things done."

He said the next step would be to take the entire system away from the Department of Interior.

The first disconnect order from the courts came in 2001 when Special Master Balaran demonstrated how easy it was to penetrate security.

There was no indication from the Department of Interior when the system will be fixed so the schools would be able to regain Internet access.

Calls to some schools went unanswered and many said that questions should be addressed to the Department of Interior.