Fed security sentries late on Love alert

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Security sentries late on Love alert BY Dan Verton, Diane Frank and George Seffers 05/08/2000

When agencies battled the "Melissa" virus in March 1999, systems administrators attributed the governments success to coordinated, timely alerts and good planning. But when the "ILOVEYOU" virus came to town last week, the federal response was anything but coordinated, agencies said.

The virus, also known as the "love letter" and the "love bug," hit virtually every agency, including Congress, last week. It hit potentially more than 1 million systems worldwide, overwriting files, erasing hard drives and possibly stealing thousands of password files. At least two malicious variants appeared by late Thursday.

The Federal Computer Incident Response Capability is supposed to keep agencies abreast of security flaws and threats, as it did during the Melissa scare. But this time, most agencies learned about the virus through unofficial channels  including phone calls from the Defense Department and early-morning news broadcasts  hours before FedCIRC got the word out.

FedCIRC found itself caught short because many agencies shut down their systems when they learned of the virus, including the General Services Administration, which controls the main FedCIRC server.

"The distribution of alert information was somewhat hampered by the nonresponsiveness of various mail hosts due to the impact of the virus, and in many cases we resorted to phone and faxes," said Dave Jarrell, director of FedCIRC. "We put corrections and tools and guidance up there to help agencies, but if they dont get my e-mail, they cant go out and check the resources."

FedCIRC is trying to put together its own server and system for sending out information to help avoid future bottlenecks in the alert process, Jarrell said. "The problem is that we dont have the funding to do this right now," he said. "Weve got the plan, but we dont have the money to do what we want to do."

European Battleground

DODs Joint Task Force for Computer Network Defense first learned about the ILOVEYOU virus in the early-morning hours on Thursday from military units in Europe. A Pentagon source confirmed that seven out of nine regional commanders in chief immediately shut down their e-mail servers. About 1,000 computers throughout DOD, including some classified e-mail systems, were affected by the virus Trojan Horse code, the source said.

A spokeswoman for the Pentagon said shutting down e-mail systems should have been "a last resort." DOD immediately called as many agencies as possible, including phoning the Education Department by 7:30 a.m.

But many Pentagon officials were not satisfied with the time it took for the JTF-CND warning to be issued, according to Maj. Perry Noius, spokesman for U.S. Space Command, which oversees operations of the JTF-CND.

"It took about an hour and a half to process the information and to figure out exactly what the virus was," Noius said. "Then we sent out a worldwide warning [by 9 a.m.] to the Defense Department, the CIA, NSA, FBI and [the National Reconnaissance Office]. From there, it was up to the FBI to notify the other departments and agencies."

Education spokesman Jim Bradshaw said that once the Pentagon notified his department, "we were able to take defensive measures immediately."

The Transportation Department managed to contain the ILOVEYOU virus early on, thanks to warnings received from informal internal channels and word-of-mouth, said George Molaski, DOTs chief information officer. A computer system engineer at DOT was able to pass on the information to some DOT officials as early as 5 a.m., but a notice from FedCIRC didnt appear until after noon Thursday, Molaski said.

G. Clay Hollister, CIO at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said being aware of the problem early helped limit the severity of the virus effect on the agency.

"Our enterprise security manager and national e-mail administrator learned about it [Wednesday] night, and the first message with it arrived at about 8:30 [Thursday] morning," Hollister said. "At 8:32 a.m., a throttle was built in to our national firewall that limited any messages in or out to 10K...since they knew the message itself was about 15K."

The Love Letter e-mail hit five computers at the Census Bureaus main office in Suitland, Md., but Census 2000 data was never in any danger of being compromised. Census data is kept in a mainframe computer that has no outside access to e-mail.

The Department of Veterans Affairs shut down its e-mail system for 24 hours to prevent the Love bug from doing damage.

Several agencies expressed concern that FedCIRC, the JTF-CND and other alert organizations did not put out warnings until mid-Thursday. But some officials suggested that it might be better to wait for a full analysis of a virus rather than act on rumors circulating through unofficial channels.

"Your worst enemy in a situation like this is a panic response," Jarrell said. "You need to think out your response and the implications, and if you shut down your connection, that has an impact."

Ben Venzke, manager of intelligence production for Infrastructure Defense Inc., said that is the wrong answer. "Speed is of the utmost importance, and you simply cant rely on one means of communications," he said. "If you tell the client two hours after the fact, you are not doing them a service," he said. "Five, 10, 20 minutes makes a real difference when everybody is arriving at work. Users need to know what to look out for."

John Thomas, deputy general manager and vice president of AverStar Inc.s Services Group and former commander of the Pentagons Global Network Operations and Security Center, said DODs worldwide presence was a major benefit in this case and provided critical indications and warning.

"Spread [of a virus] is an operational issue not a viral issue," Thomas said. Fortunately, DOD has a well-established "culture of reporting" in place, he said. "There needs to be some sort of secure alert network. However, the phone is still a very viable option."

--Natasha Haubold, Judi Hasson, Dan Caterinicchia, Daniel Keegan and Paula Shaki


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), May 08, 2000


Mon. May 8, 2000

'Love Bug' Virus Bites Deep Into NASA

By Paul Hoversten Washington Bureau Chief posted: 02:10 pm ET 05 May 2000

WASHINGTON -- Most of NASA's computer programs were back to normal Friday, a day after the so-called "love-bug" computer virus forced the space agency for the first time to shut down its e-mail system at centers around the country.

Only the sprawling Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston remained out of touch electronically -- its e-mail clobbered by the virus that appeared in messages such as "ILOVEYOU."

Thursday's outage marked the first time NASA has been without e-mail since the mid-1980s, when the space agency began installing an internal electronic-messaging system.

'Love' At Work 'I Love You' also infected aerospace companies' e-mail systems on Thursday, but its effects were far from crippling. Want to know more?

"We got hit at multiple centers so, yeah, it was pretty serious," said Brian Dunbar, a spokesman at NASA Headquarters, which assessed the damage at its 10 field centers.

"But no mission-critical systems were affected. If something was lost, it was on people's [computer-screen] desktops," he said.

JSC also took the unusual step of closing down its website for security purposes while technicians installed new anti-virus software and systems.

Until everyone is back online, "well go back to the old-fashioned method of phones, faxes and talking to people," said Kelly Humphries, a JSC spokesman.

JSC, which is the home of the astronauts and Mission Control for both the space shuttle and the International Space Station, uses the type of computer software -- Microsoft Outlook -- that the virus had targeted.

It could remain without e-mail through the weekend, Dunbar said.

"Obviously the people who use the Microsoft suite of products are going to be more affected," Dunbar said. "And JSC relies on Microsoft products, more so than the other centers which went in under one contract for their systems."

Other centers that lost e-mail capability on Thursday were the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Those centers were back to normal by Friday afternoon.

But even as most of their computer systems came online, security experts at NASA and elsewhere were battling two new strains spawned from original virus -- considered the worst the world has seen.

The subject line of one read "VERY FUNNY JOKE" while the other was headlined "MOTHER'S DAY."

Computer experts said original "love" virus was far more devastating than last year's "Melissa" bug. The "love bug" racked up more than $1 billion in losses worldwide and infected tens of millions of computers around the world.

The bug, which was carried in an e-mail attachment on Microsoft Outlook, wipes out certain photo and multimedia files when opened. It overwrites those files with a garbled version and then passes the virus on to all addresses contained in a user's Outlook address file.

"The phone still works and the fax machine still works so things will get done. If someone is used to sending documents as a computer attachment, they'll just have to get a hard copy and walk it down the hallway." Brian Dunbar, a spokesman at NASA's headquarters in Washington.

Even without the e-mail, though, the space agency continued to function.

"The phone still works and the fax machine still works so things will get done," Dunbar said. "If someone is used to sending documents as a computer attachment, they'll just have to get a hard copy and walk it down the hallway."

Also bitten by the "love bug" were NASA Headquarters, the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

At the Kennedy Space Center, where NASA's $8 billion fleet of space shuttles is readied for flight, quick action enabled the center to avoid a migraine of major proportions.

"We were able to catch the bug early on and prevent it from spreading," said Bruce Buckingham, a KSC spokesman. "Damage appears to be minor and recoverable."

In California, home to three NASA centers, the bug's effects were minimal.

"No operations were impacted -- none," said John Bluck, a spokesman at Ames. "A very small number of desktops were affected."

At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, workers posted photocopied alerts around the leafy campus, warning against any e-mails with "ILOVEYOU" in the subject line.

"We caught it in time," said Nancy Lovato, a JPL spokeswoman.

The bug also did not appear to have much of an effect on the nation's military space program.

The Pentagon said it had encountered the virus on some of its computers Thursday but that no classified systems were affected.

The virus also reached into computers at the Central Intelligence Agency in McLean, Virginia, which uses data from classified spy satellites, but the effect was "negligible," a spokesman said.

Contributing: Todd Halvorson, Cape Canaveral Bureau Chief; Glen Golightly, Houston Bureau Chief and Andrew Bridges,


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), May 08, 2000.

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