BIA shows off information technology facility
Tuesday, March 2, 2004

Photos Courtesy BIA.
The first indication of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' attention to computer security comes before a visitor even arrives at the agency's new information technology center. The public is only supposed to know that it's in located somewhere in northern Virginia.

The second occurs upon entering at the building. Employees and visitors are no longer allowed to come and go as they wish. The security guards and their lengthy check-in and check-out procedures make sure of that.

"We've learned a lot in the past year," declares Brian Burns, the BIA's information technology guru.

In hopes of proving just how much they have learned, Burns and other top-level staff gave visitors a first look at the facility last week. The tours were arranged by new assistant secretary Dave Anderson to show how the millions being pumped into technology are indeed benefiting Indian Country -- even if the money isn't going to law enforcement, housing or other programs at the reservation level.

"We have actually a computer command center that looks like NASA," Anderson said last week at the National Congress of American Indians. "When I saw it, I said Indian Country doesn't understand what we have here. We really need people to come see where we are today compared to where we were."

Where the BIA was just a couple of years ago was literally in the dumps. Despite being charged with handling billions of dollars in Indian trust assets, the agency's system was so poorly protected that court-appointed experts were able to break into it without detection.

The situation prompted a federal judge to order the Department of Interior to ensure the system wasn't accessible via the Internet. So officials literally pulled the plug on the BIA in December 2002, causing delays in checks and other problems for thousands of American Indians, particularly the elderly.

The network still isn't connected to the Internet. But Burns, who joined the BIA in June 2002 and now serves as the deputy assistant secretary for information technology, said the shutdown gave the agency a rare opportunity to build a system from the ground up.

"We do have a very fresh approach as we move forward," he said. Most of the members of his team have worked for the BIA for less than two years. A couple of them have been on the job for less than six months.

The first major change was to move the old Office of Information Resource Management in Reston, Virginia, to its new location. By leasing a building from a dot-com company, the BIA took advantage of a facility that was already well-suited to the task.

From Virginia, the BIA oversees all computer and network activity within its 12 regions. The Network Operations Command Center, or NOCC, monitors network traffic and is designed to detect the status of every single BIA computer, whether it's in South Dakota or California.

The Security Operations Command Center, or SOCC, is designed to detect intrusions, or hacking, attempts. When the network is finally reconnected to the Internet, the SOCC should be able to deal with e-mail viruses and other problems that have hit computers worldwide in recent months but have spared the BIA.

Both the NOCC and the SOCC are located in a single room [see pictures above] that gives employees a top-level look at what's happening at the BIA nationwide. Television monitors tuned to news and weather channels keep staff updated on environmental and other issues that could affect the network.

"We have flexibility in this room, that's the bottom line," said Burns, who compared it to a 911-dispatch or credit card call center.

The Virginia facility also houses the Systems Data Center, home to the systems that handle oil and gas royalties, per capita payments and other trust fund transactions. Some of these so-called legacy systems are more than 25 years old.

"It still runs," Burns said of one, "but there's a lot of kinks in it." In case of a power outage, the systems can access a backup generator that will run for three days.

Burns emphasized that the focus on technology is not just helping the federal government. "We are committed to working with Indian-owned, tribal-owned companies where we can," he said.

A staff member said the BIA has so far awarded $13 million in contracts to Indian companies. More contracts will be funded this year.

The BIA also wants to pass on its expertise to tribes whenever possible, Burns said. "We want to share as much as we can, without getting into security issues," he said. Tribes that are not as "savvy" with technology will be able to look to the BIA for assistance, he added.

The only major hurdle left is for the BIA to reconnect to the Internet. The agency is working with special master Alan Balaran, a court officer, to make sure that happens.

"We've focused on our Internet presence, so that when we do come up, that we're ready," Burns said.

In total, about 150 employees work for the BIA's Office of the Chief Information Officer. Most of the staff is located in northern Virginia although two areas are operated out of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice -
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -

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