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How a virus crashed Homeland Security

Border chaos from Zotob outbreak 'avoidable'

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A computer virus that infected computers connecting the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) US-VISIT border screening system last year first passed through the backbone network of the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement bureau, according to documents obtained by Wired, following a year long legal fight.

The papers - obtained under the Freedom of Information Act - highlight the DHS's ineffective response to the attack. Rather than protecting 1,300 US-VISIT workstations as a priority, it concentrated on patching desktop computers. The DHS resisted attempts to release documents on the crash, as it turns out, more to avoid public embarrassment than out of concerns sensitive information on its systems might be disclosed.

The Zotob worm used using a vulnerability in Windows 2000's Plug and Play service to attack vulnerable machines. Microsoft released a patch for the flaw on 9 August, but many organisations have failed to apply a fix before Moroccan virus writers1 released a worm on 13 August. The DHS delayed patching US-VISIT workstations running Windows 2000 Professional over concerns that more testing was needed because of the amount of peripherals they supported and concentrated its efforts on patching desktop machines even as reports began to flood in about widespread infection of US-VISIT workstations.

The infection led to long queues at airports, as border controls processed entrants manually or, in some cases, using backup computers. It took more than a day to bring the problem under a semblance of control. By the early hours of 19 August, a day after the outbreak flared up, 72 per cent of the workstations were patched. But if the update was applied on workstations at the same time it was applied to desktop PCs - 17 August - widespread problems could have been avoided.

Wired has a full run-down of the outbreak, based on internal reports made within the DHS before and after the incident, which serves as a case history on mistakes to avoid in patch management and dealing with virus outbreaks. ®

1 Moroccan Farid Essebar (AKA Diabl0) was jailed for perpetrating the Zotob outrage back in September 2006. As well as the DHS other victims of the worm included CNN, ABC, the Financial Times and the New York Times.

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