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Court Seeks Inquiry Into BIA Internet Use

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is seeking additional information about commercial e-mail accounts used in violation of a court order prohibiting Internet connections at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

Barred from connecting to the Internet since December of last year because of security concerns about the vulnerability of Indian trust fund account databases, the court recently discovered BIA employees using Hotmail, a free e-mail service provided by Microsoft. The use of the Hotmail accounts emerged during a deposition in which the Dept. of Justice submitted e-mails between BIA employees.

In a letter of inquiry to the Dept. of Interior, which oversees the BIA, the court cited concerns that the BIA is not monitoring the use of employee e-mail at the agency to properly ensure that no information about the Indian trust funds is contained in the e-mails.

The court order disconnecting the BIA from the Internet is part of the long running Elouise Cobell vs. Gale Norton class action lawsuit. Cobell is accusing the Dept. of Interior of mismanaging as many as 800,000 trust funds of past and present native American landowners.

As one of many rulings in the 6-year-old case, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ordered the Dept. of Interior to improve the computer security of the trust fund accounts. In response, the agency disconnected virtually all of Interior's internet connections. In addition, Lamberth held Interior Secretary Norton in contempt of court in September for failing to improve the computer security of the agency.

With the exception of the BIA, most Internet connections have been re-established at Interior.