Court blocks order cutting off Interior computer systems from Internet

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has temporarily blocked an order issued last week by a lower court that would have forced the Interior Department to disconnect its computers containing Individual Indian Trust data from the Internet.

The temporary stay issued Oct. 21 suspends an order issued by Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that would have forced the disconnection of thousands of Interior Department computers from the Internet.

The appeals court said it had issued the administrative stay so that it could rule on the merits of the federal government's challenge to Lamberth's Oct. 20 order.

As reported earlier, the Justice Department had appealed Lamberth's order that would have mandated the cutoff of about 6,000 Interior Department computers that contain Individual Indian Trust data from the Internet.

Interior officials said Lamberth's order also would have required the disconnection of an unknown number of additional computers that indirectly link to the Individual Indian Trust information.

The kerfuffle over Interior's Internet connection flows from the case of Cobell v. Norton in which the plaintiffs are seeking to restore funds lost or stolen from American Indians since the late 1800s under the federal government's policy of holding lands and assets?such as timber, gas, rights-of-way and oil?in trust for their American Indian owners.

Many of the records from the pre-computer era are inaccurate or missing. The plaintiffs in the case hold that Interior has mismanaged the computer systems that keep track of the trust funds, partly by failing to adopt suitable security measures.

Lamberth's order followed a 59-day hearing this summer about the worthiness of Interior's IT security measures that led him order the systems cut off from the Internet again to protect the American Indians' assets. The hearing featured testimony by federally contracted computer specialists who said they had hacked into Interior's systems easily and been able to alter information.

The appeals court order leaves the case in limbo for the time being.

"Upon consideration of the emergency motion for temporary stay pending appeal, it is ordered that the district court order filed Oct. 20th granting appellant's motion for preliminary injunction shall be stayed pending further order of the court," according to the stay. "The purpose of this administrative stay is to give the court sufficient opportunity to consider the merits of the appelant's full motion for stay which shall be filed on before Oct. 27, 2005."

Wilson P. Dizard III is a senior writer for Washington Technology's sister publication, Government Computer News.

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