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By LOLITA C. BALDOR
WASHINGTON — Nearly 15 months after the U.S. Defense Department banned the use of external computer flash drives, officials have agreed to allow limited use of the convenient devices.
The approved flash drives will be included in kits that the military will soon begin to distribute, with the first priority being troops in Afghanistan and Iraq who could use the devices to carry or transfer critical data.
Vice Adm. Carl Mauney, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told reporters Friday that initially only dozens will be sent to the war zone, but eventually more kits will be created and distributed. He said he does not know how much the kits will cost, or how many will be handed out over time.
Plagued by millions of computer probes and attacks every day, the Pentagon has been struggling to balance its need for strict computer security with the battlefield demands of its commanders. Defense Department and other U.S. government officials repeatedly warn of the growing threat of coordinated cyber attacks that pose potential national security risks.
The threats come from a wide range of attackers — from routine hackers to foreign governments looking to steal sensitive information or bring down critical, life-sustaining systems.
A Defense Department study last year concluded, for example, that China's People's Liberation Army has set up information warfare units to develop viruses to attack enemy computer systems and networks as well as to protect friendly systems.
In November 2008, after a rash of viruses and other cyber incidents hit Pentagon computers — and in some cases affected unclassified systems and forced workers to take computers offline — Pentagon officials banned and confiscated employees' flash drives. The drives, used to move documents or data from one computer to another, can easily transfer viruses or other damaging computer malware from unprotected equipment to the government systems.
Mauney said the new flash drive kits will include filters and other protections to ensure data will be transferred safely.