Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Banned in Boston?

Not quite, but we have been blocked at the Air Staff, at Langley AFB, and at MacDill, Hickam, and every other Air Force installation.

After posting our special report on last year's nuclear accident at Minot AFB, In From the Cold (apparently) became blog non grata for the Air Force. We received a flurry of e-mails Monday morning, notifying us that our blog could no longer be accessed from office computers at various Air Force bases.

Fine by us--the service invested a lot of dough in its IT network, and they can block whatever they want. I suppose there's a certain badge of infamy in joining the ranks of various porn sites, on-line casinos and various other outlets deemed inappropriate for our boys and girls in blue.

But we find the decision more than a bit ironic. So does veteran investigative reporter Susan Katz-Keating, who noted at her blog:

The series is not a hit job on the USAF. It is the product of meticulous, thoughtful reporting aimed at shedding much needed light. Seriously: We don't want to lose control of any of our nukes, ever. We need to learn from what happened at Minot. This report helps us do that.

That was our certainly our intent. Our Minot series is based on detailed interviews with various experts, including one of the service's most experienced nuclear weapons technicians, who has more than three decades of experience in that demanding career field. That source's reputation as a leader, manager and straight shooter is above reproach.

We should also note that our report does not contain any classified information. That was one of our ground rules in researching the series. As we've observed on numerous occasions, there are secrets that must be kept, even in a democracy. Some of those secrets involve the operational details our our nuclear weapons arsenal. Readers will find that our discussion of the actual incident--in terms of weapons and aircraft--was limited to what the Air Force has publicly disclosed.

And, for the record, we have never served with any of the key personalities involved in the Minot episode. So, the series isn't about settling old scores, or trying to make someone look bad.

Instead, the Minot story is one of human and system failings that triggered one of the nation's worst nuclear weapons mishaps. Those are the types of errors that (in our judgment) the public has a right to know about. More importantly, as Ms. Katz-Keating occurs, there is an opportunity to learn from this incident, and (hopefully) minimize the chances for similar accidents in the future.

In tomorrow's final installment of the series, we'll examine the long-term fallout from the mishap, and it's potential impact on the nation's security. As in previous articles, we will make every effort to present an objective assessment of the incident, based on what has been revealed so far.

For that, we make no apologies--even if it keeps us on the "blocked" list.


crosspatch said...

Thinking for a moment I am wondering what the Air Force is trying to protect their network from. I mean, if they are blocking you, it would mean that the Air Force doesn't want their people to see what you have to say while they are at work. Of course they will have full access to you when they get off work and go home or from the corner coffee shop or wherever. I am just wondering what the point of blocking you is. What really does it accomplish? All I can see is that it communicates the message "we are angry with you" and little more. It doesn't actually prevent anyone from looking at your site if they want to.

Netdude said...

Hate to tell you this...but there are thousands of Websites....blogs in particular...that are blocked. I can't speak for the network administrator types....but sites are added to the blocked list every day. It was a matter of time before your blog was blocked. Other blogs and sites I visit on a daily basis has been blocked recently. The computers at work are just for that....work. Unless you have a mission requirement to visit a blog...or Youtube....or Ebay...or sites like that, then they should be be blocked IMHO.

Like I did tonight...I visited your blog from my home. No big deal.

Sorry guys....it isn't personal. You can take off your tinfoil hats now. :)

Unknown said...

Netdude is right. Air Force computers are for Air Force business. The only reason we have access to the internet is because it supports our work function, It's true that mainstream news outlets are generally not blocked, but blogs, forums, fantasy football sites, humor sites and many other sites are not deemed necessary information for Air Force business. Your site probably got noticed because it started showing up as us Air Force types searched for information on the Minot/Nuke fiasco. Even Instapundit is blocked!

Thanks for the article.


Susan Katz Keating said...

Does the Air Force comb through on-base copies of civilian newspapers, and slice out the unapproved articles? Does the Army block civilian radio and television signals from coming onto base? Does the Navy prohibit civilian phone calls to and from installations? Of course not. Our warfighters and supporting personnel cannot nor should not be kept inside a military bubble. Why the brouhaha, then, about the Internet? Aside from the issues surrounding personal freedoms and access to information, think of the effort that goes into blocking a website. This must be someone's job, to sift through the Internet, clicking "Accept" or "Reject" at each new url. My own blog is blocked from Pentagon servers for having "hostile" content (which I have yet to find), and now In From the Cold got bagged for posting about Minot. I'd love to see the AA reports from that blocker's daily work log. They're probably stored on a blocked page, though....

david said...

Agree with two commenters above -- YOU were not blocked by the AF, but rather MANY were blocked. Any blog hosted on Blogspot is routinely blocked, the majority of the time. And I noticed some pretty strict new internet blocking at my AF workstation this week -- including my own non-military, non-Blogspot site.

Don't take it personally, and don't think that it is a sign of how "dangerous" you are.

Howard said...

There is not a single company anywhere that doesn't block sites that have nothing to do with business. I'm on the job and I should use the company computer for work. I can always use my laptop and if that isn't possible I can watch porn at noontime. If I was running some division at a military base I'd write up anyone who hit a site that wasn't work related.

Eric said...

As one who worked with the Air Force's internet filtering when it was first distributed and activated back in about 2000 or so, and actually drafted our MAJCOM's policy on using it, let me point out a couple things:

Netdude and Craig are almost certainly on the right track. Geekster and Susan Katz Keating are almost certainly not on right track. In fact, when speculating on the nefarious motives of others, let me offer this: claiming that the Air Force has specially targeted you is pretty ego-stoking is it not? Being just another blog that got swept aside in the not very delicate internet filter employed by the USAF is...not so gratifying.

The internet filtering software employed in the 2000-2005 time frame was distributed to each comm squadron in the USAF. It allowed each base to block categories of web content -- there were about 20 or so categories initially, things such as gambling, pornography, political, etc. Base commanders could select which broad categories to block -- not specific URLs, just categories. If something useful got swept up in it, then that specific website could be allowed through by URL. I don't recall that blocking software at that time even allowed blocking by URL (there were other means to do that, of course).

The assignment of URLs to categories wasn't even done by the Air Force. (I didn't agree with this in principle, but that's how it was.) The contractor who sold the software did the assignments, and it was part of the contract to provide periodic updates. I guess they had lots of people, probably not highly paid, sitting around cruising the internet and scoring URLs for which category they fell into. Obviously with such a method two seemingly similar websites could end up categorized differently, or at different times. We saw this alot.

Because the initial deployment of the software did not come with any guidance on which categories to block, every base did something different, and it caused some confusion and aggravation. At least in some cases, this meant that it was left to the guy installing the software, usually a mid-level NCO, or his boss, a senior NCO, to do the first category selection. It turned out these guys generally cranked it down tight -- damn near all the boxes got checked, and everybody's fun came to a screaming halt. The MAJCOM SC got called on a Saturday by the MAJCOM commander wondering what on earth were the comm people up to?
I was working for the MAJCOM SC at the time, and that next Monday was assigned to draft a policy for our MAJCOM. Interestingly, all those big mean bird colonels and generals (guys you usually think of as "The Air Force" when you want to assign nefarious intent) wanted the policy to restrict access AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE. They were certainly not worried about political sites or pretty much anything else -- we basically only specified about three or four categoried to block MAJCOM wide, stuff like gambling and porn, and then, while leaving local decisions to local commanders, urged them to tread lightly on the rest. Imagine that.

And Ms Keating? Does the Army or the Air Force regulate access to newspapers and TV and radio on base? You bet they do. If you are reading/watching/listening when you are supposed to be working, you can expect to get reprimanded by your supervisor. If you are reading Playboy or watching porn movies at anytime anywhere near the work area, worktime or breaktime, you can expect disciplinary action shortly. Your effort to claim the military is regulating the internet but not the other mediums doesn't wash. Different mediums get different mechanism, but they still get regulated.

Does the Navy block civilian phone calls to and from base? I don't know, but guess what -- the Air Force can and does. The Air Force also has a monitoring called TSS that tracks the origin and destination of every call. It does NOT monitor the content, that is, what is actually said, but it does keep track of the digital data, and can be used to block or restrict calls. At the points I was involved with it, it was used intially/primarily to track down unauthorized modem access into the comm networks, toblock harrassing phone calls (such as the guy who was angry with his Air Force soon-to-be-ex wife and faxed derogatory info about her to every fax he could find on base), and to get some huge phone costs under control when some foreign military students found they could call home "free" on some unattended phones at one of our bases.

As Craig said, Air Force computers are for Air Force business, not for the general amusement of the force. Having said that, most all of the commanders and senior officers I knew tred as lightly as possible (particularly overseas) when restricting access -- the basic nature of the job brovides enough restrictions, we try not to add more just for fun. I doubt there is a command post in the Air Force that does not have Fox News and CNN running 24 hours a day in the background. Not too many running HBO, tho. Now, when someone does something stupid, commanders are not going to spend a lot of time parsing fine points -- generally the clamps come on hard, and the finer points worked out later.

So you can amuse yourself by thinking you are a huge thorn in the military's side, but more likely you are dust mote being swept aside by the military's broom.

Netdude said...

Wow...well done everyone. Bottom line....it is about making sure people are doing what they are supposed to be doing with their government computers: Real work....saving bandwith....and protecting the network. You know...being good stewards with the taxpayer's money.

Susan Katz Keating said...

Eric, thank you for this helpful and informative backgrounder on the blocking software and process. Your explanation only emphasizes my concern, though - that the blocking process is a big waste of time and money. Also, your comment missed my point. The military does NOT block access to newspapers, broadcast frequencies or (in nonsecure areas) telephones. If, however, military personnel misuse these resources - say, they watch Oprah while on duty - they are subject to reprimand, which is an appropriate response. There is a big difference, though, between reprimanding for misuse and denying access. Sorry, I don't buy the explanation that our service personnel are so distractable that they will sit around cruising the Internet all day unless DOD removes the temptation. "In From the Cold" has been on line for years, and only just now was blocked, in wake of the Minot report. I have a tough time thinking this is just coincidence.

Steve said...

I found this at another Blog run by an Air Force IT guy http://madurkeevirginia.blogspot.com


Well, the culprit behind not being able to visit Blogspot and many other blogs is BlueCoat Web Filter. Apparently the license for Smartfilter has expired and the powers that be bought off on Bluecoat instead.

Unknown said...

Just a couple of observations from an outsider:

1. The timing of the blocking is very suspect. “In From the Cold” was not blocked because they got swept up in some very general sweep of blogs. It seems they blocked because airmen were spending job time reading the report and because some very big toes were getting stepped on.
2. The apparent fact that that working with nukes in general and Minot specifically is not sexy in today’s GWOT is the unspoken truth. In other words don’t tell junior airmen this or we will really have a hard time getting qualified people to stay in the Air Force knowing that they might get posted to the frozen tundra looking after weapons that have not been used in combat in over 62 years.
3. The Air Force and all of the military should read these reports even on company time. They are great case studies in how things can go wrong. I plan on my management team reading them even though they know nothing about nukes.
4. It seems that the real message is that some times you only have to turn over one domino to end up with a mess. Everyone needs to hear that message

Anonymous said...

I work for the Air Force and do quite a bit of open source research - including on blogs. I can understand blocking eBay, or sites like You Tube for bandwidth issues. But many blogs are useful for work-related purposes, at least for my job.

Also, their choices for blocked sites are at times ridiculous, and their reasoning is even worse. It irritates me to no end every time I see something blocked for ridiculous reasons like "general news" or "educational." I think the worst was the search engine blocked for "personal" reasons. If it made more sense, I'd understand it more.

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 01/30/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

Netdude said...

Mrs. Keating....put down the cool-aid:

-- Your explanation only emphasizes my concern, though - that the blocking process is a big waste of time and money.
They have software that does this for us I believe. I don't know how much it costs...but I'm sure the ROI outweighs the productivity time recovered.

-- The military does NOT block access to newspapers, broadcast frequencies or (in nonsecure areas) telephones.
*** Mostly true. On my computer...I can't visit some of the "less reputable" newspaper...like most of the ones in the UK. I'm also limited by the cable service the bases subscribes to. Just wanted to point that out

-- If, however, military personnel misuse these resources - say, they watch Oprah while on duty - they are subject to reprimand, which is an appropriate response. There is a big difference, though, between reprimanding for misuse and denying access.
Why give someone the opportunity to misuse something. Just take it away...problem solved.

-- Sorry, I don't buy the explanation that our service personnel are so distractable that they will sit around cruising the Internet all day unless DOD removes the temptation. "In From the Cold" has been on line for years, and only just now was blocked, in wake of the Minot report.
*** Wow, slow down. First...sorry you don't buy it. Second, you underestimate the lazyness of the average troop :) and Third....have you not been reading this thread? IFTC is one of countless sites that have been blocked. BTW...domains are blocked...not sites. OK....the timing makes you go hmmmm, and if it was just this blog, then I'd agree w/you. But...it isn't just this blog....so enough!

Netdude said...

Centcom Chick...

I have a work-related requirement too. I suggest doing what I'm in the process of doing....get a waiver. Its doable.

Susan Katz Keating said...

The Air Force has contracted with an outfit called Blue Coat to run its Internet content filtering. According to Blue Coat, its software enables individual installations to "customize the policy on Internet usage." As for the Pentagon... As per my source: "Sites are deemed "malicious" when they are blocked for whatever reason - the term is a category, but not a specific label.... A designation of 'malicious' content is not necessarily based on content but instead is used if the physical site has been compromised or modified to do harm to OSD computers."

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