Security sentries late on Love alert
- By Dan Verton, Diane Frank, George I. Seffers
- May 08, 2000
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."
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.