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High-Stakes Security Setups Are Making Remote Work Impossible

Staffers at power grids, intelligence agencies, and more often don’t have the option to work from home, even in light of Covid-19.
a worker fixing a power line
Photograph: Getty Images

It's a rule of thumb in cybersecurity that the more sensitive your system, the less you want it to touch the internet. But as the US hunkers down to limit the spread of Covid-19, cybersecurity measures present a difficult technical challenge to working remotely for employees at critical infrastructure, intelligence agencies, and anywhere else with high-security networks. In some cases, working from home isn't an option at all.

Companies with especially sensitive data or operations often limit remote connections, segment networks to limit a hacker's access if they do get in, and sometimes even disconnect their most important machines from the internet altogether. Late last week, the US government's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued an to critical infrastructure companies to prepare for remote work scenarios as Covid-19 spreads. That means checking that their virtual private networks are patched, implementing multifactor authentication, and testing out remote access scenarios.

7x彩票网地址But cybersecurity consultants who actually work with those high-stakes clients—including electric utilities, oil and gas firms, and manufacturing companies—say that it's not always so simple. For many of their most critical customers, and even more so for intelligence agencies, remote work and security don't mix.

7x彩票网地址"Organizations are realizing that work-from-home would be very difficult to execute," says Joe Slowik, who previously led the computer emergency response team at the Department of Energy before joining the critical-infrastructure-focused security firm Dragos. "This should be a fairly good wake-up call. You need to figure out a way that if individuals cannot physically access the control system environment for a service that cannot stop, like electricity, water, and wastewater or similar services, you ensure continuous operation—even in the face of an environment where you might be risking your employees' lives if they continue to commute into the office."

that as many as 40 percent of utility workers could be home sick, quarantined or at home taking care of sick relatives. And electric utility news site that many utilities across the country are limiting travel, shifting as many staff as possible to remote work, scheduling meetings as videoconferences, and ramping up hygiene practices.

Intelligence agencies and other parts of the government that keep classified information locked away from the internet present an even starker problem. NSA staff are strictly forbidden to work from home, and intelligence community sources tell WIRED that NSA policy hasn't changed in spite of the current pandemic. Staff have been asked to limit nonessential travel, but they've received no organization-wide instructions on how their remote work policy might shift to account for Covid-19, even for older employees or those with health conditions who might be more at risk. Instead, they've been asked to practice social distancing and told that if they're forced to self-quarantine due to potential exposure to the virus, they're free to take up to two weeks of paid administrative leave.

7x彩票网地址The result may simply be far higher rates of viral transmission among government staffers who work in classified environments, says Jake Williams, himself a former NSA analyst. He describes his time at the NSA's outpost at Fort Gordon in Georgia as an open-floor-plan office. Staffers rarely called in sick, due to their mission's time sensitivity. Many worked in shifts, rotating 24/7 at the same desks. "You’re sitting down at a desk someone else sat at, typed at, coughed at," Williams says. "I have no idea what they're going to do, but I cannot fathom how it won’t spread like wildfire."

That inescapable risk, as with so many other professions like medical, food service, retail, transit, sanitation, and factory workers, puts the problem in perspective: Remote work may pose some serious challenges for highly secured workplaces. But for the federal staffers and power grid operators in the most sensitive organizations of all—like so many others—it's an impossible luxury.


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