Security sentries late on Love alert

When agencies battled the "Melissa" virus in March 1999, systems administrators

attributed the government's 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 don't get my e-mail, they can't go out and check the


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 don't have the funding to do this right now,"

he said. "We've got the plan, but we don't have the money to do what we

want to do."

European Battleground

DOD's 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, DOT's 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 didn't 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 Bureau's 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 can't 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 Pentagon's Global Network Operations

and Security Center, said DOD's 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 Trimble contributed to this article.


  • Government Innovation Awards
    Government Innovation Awards -

    Congratulations to the 2021 Rising Stars

    These early-career leaders already are having an outsized impact on government IT.

  • Acquisition
    Shutterstock ID 169474442 By Maxx-Studio

    The growing importance of GWACs

    One of the government's most popular methods for buying emerging technologies and critical IT services faces significant challenges in an ever-changing marketplace

Stay Connected