Air Force lab finds a simple way to support telework

The open-source Lightweight Portable Security tool provides trusted endpoints for remotely accessing DOD IT resources from untrusted environments, enabling secure Internet browsing and telework on sensitive systems.

The threat of an H1N1 flu pandemic last year spurred the Defense Department to plan for the possibility that large numbers of workers would need to work from home if a viral outbreak quarantined employees and required offices to shut down.

But telework on DOD systems usually requires government-furnished equipment to provide a trusted endpoint for remote access. Without a trusted endpoint, remote access opens sensitive DOD systems to the threat of unauthorized intrusions and the loss of sensitive data. DOD wanted a more practical method than providing computers for each worker on short notice.

“The idea of telework is not new,” said Richard Kutter, senior electronics engineer at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s office that manages the Director of Defense Research and Engineering’s Software Protection Initiative (SPI). “The challenge is to enable telework for workers at home without buying them a computer."

As luck would have it, the needed tool was already available: Lightweight Portable Security. LPS is a simple, inexpensive tool to create trusted endpoints for government and the public. It is bootable, open-source software that can be used with most Windows, Macintosh or Linux computers to create a nonpersistent trusted end node for secure browsing, cloud computing or network access. It boots a Linux operating system from a LiveCD and installs nothing on the client computer, running only in RAM to bypass any local malware and leave no record of the session.

Air Force DDR&E SPI

From left, Kevin Sweere, Jeff Hughes, Gordon Strong and Rich Kutter.

“The concept of a boot CD met that bill easily,” Kutter said.

Approved by DOD's CIO in December 2009 for continuity of operations, LPS-Remote Access has since been adopted by more than 30 DOD organizations and more than 58,000 employees. More than 35,500 copies of a simpler, free public version, LPS-Public, have been downloaded from the SPI website since 2008. A version of Remote Access is in development for the Cyber Command, which was recently established at Fort Meade, Md.

Like telework, the concept of a bootable CD with its own operating system, or a LiveCD, is not new, and Kutter came up with the idea of using it to enable trusted remote access in 2001. He had experience working with Unix and Linux, and “I knew it would be possible,” he said.

But the idea languished for five years.

“It was not until 2006 that I moved from support operations to be a researcher,” said Kutter, who now heads the LPS Deployment and Demonstration Team. After development began, the project moved quickly, with a proof of concept demonstrated by early 2007 and the release of the public edition in 2008.

In addition to Kutter, the development team included Division Chief Jeff Hughes; Lt. Col. Kenneth Edge, SPI's program manager; Michael Kenny, a Linux developer; Gordon Strong, LPS product manager; and Kevin Sweere, outreach and marketing manager.

The heart of LPS is a stripped-down, hardened Linux system with other open-source software. The team opted for open-source software because it was readily available and free and had a large user and developer base to draw on for support. The software was relatively easy to inspect, understand and customize. The source code was evaluated for risk, unneeded parts were removed, and the resulting system was hardened for greater security.

Most of the project was not difficult, Kutter said. “The devil is in the details. The effort was to integrate the sort of things that the DOD needed,” such as support for the department’s public-key infrastructure, the Common Access Card, and specific servers and back-end systems. “That was not easy.”

The LPS-Public edition is small, with a 124M image that can fit on a mini-CD, and requires a Pentium II or better processor and 384M of RAM. It is available as a free download and is optimized to allow Web browsing without risk of infection. It is intended for casual telecommuting and using an untrusted system for sensitive tasks. With the software installed, users can access CAC-enabled websites. The Air Force relied on LPS-Public when CAC authentication was mandated in January for accessing the Air Force's Web portal. A deluxe version includes a suite of office tools for working locally.

LPS-Remote Access was developed in 2009 to provide a telework tool for continuity of operations in the wake of a potential flu pandemic. It creates a virtual government-furnished equipment node on a private computer. Although DOD built the software, LPS-Remote Access is available for all federal agencies and contractors. “We’ll provide custom builds to all agencies as far as our resources allow,” Kutter said.

The LiveCD boots a minimized Linux operating system that can only connect to a hard-coded IP address, start a virtual private network client and run a remote desktop client. Because of the required hard-coding, a version is custom-built to match each organization’s infrastructure. The build is delivered to the customer through secure channels, and each organization distributes the CDs.

Although the H1N1 pandemic did not affect DOD as severely as feared, LPS-Remote Access proved its worth during Snowmageddon, the back-to-back snowstorms that shut down much of the nation’s capital in February, stranding many workers at home. The tool worked as expected, Kutter said.

The private sector is beginning to address the market for creating trusted endpoints for remote access that LPS was intended to fill, and Kutter said DOD is not interested in competing.

“When we started, we were pretty much the only game in town,” he said. “The federal government is not in the business of putting businesses out of business. If they can deliver what we need more economically, we’ll be glad to get out of the space.”

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