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UK councils in email meltdown madness

New Forest without mail as Cambridge launches spam blizzard

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Email systems and local councils in Britain just don't seem to mix.

Council bosses in the New Forest called in the assistance of Microsoft after a glitch in its email system prevented staff from either sending or receiving email for a week.

System failure on 20 February was followed by a secondary (unrelated) problem which complicated efforts to restore the service, This is Hampshire reports. The problem is the first of its kind to affect the council.

Email was finally restored on Tuesday 27 February, via a hastily installed replacement system, leaving council workers with a huge backlog of messages to wade through.

Speaking before the problem was resolved, a council worker told This is Hampshire that even though other council systems were unaffected by the problem the email outage had paralysed council operations. "There are thousands of people working for the authority and no-one can do any work other than the absolute basic.

"This is costing the taxpayer thousands of pounds in wasted time. People are missing appointments because they can't access diaries and urgent or date-sensitive emails, and deadlines have been missed," the source added.

The issue was raised at a council meeting on Monday, prompting an apology from New Forest District Council chief executive Dave Yates to elected representatives and the public. "We are continuing to work with Microsoft to get to the bottom of the problem and prevent it happening again in the future," he said, adding that council workers had worked hard to minimise disruption to the public.

Feedback on This is Hampshire's website suggests local residents are less than impressed by New Forest's failure to implement an effective disaster recovery programme or its overall handling of the email outage.

Cambridge businesses are almost equally upset, albeit for different reasons, after receiving thousands of copies of the same email from their local council. Some firms were forced to take email servers offline in order to cope with the unwarranted email blizzard, Cambridge Evening News reports.

The problem involved a recently introduced system designed to allow Cambridge City Council to send invoices by email instead of through the post. A glitch meant the system re-sent multiple copies of the same email to the 200 firms on its list last week. One of the recipient's email servers went haywire and began bouncing multiple copies of these message back to all the recipients on the list, greatly compounding the problem. Although unconfirmed, the symptoms of this haywire behaviour fit those of a well-known bug in Microsoft's Small Business Server fixed over two years ago.

Council IT bosses have apologised for the mess, the cause of which remains unclear. "There are a lot of emails flying around and they are not coming from our service. It's possible a spammer has got hold of our email address and is flooding people," said James Nightingale, the council's IT contract manager, told the Cambridge Evening News.

Spammers wouldn't hijack systems to send bounced copies of council communiques so that theory can be safely discounted, we'd suggest. Whatever the cause, Cambridge City Council is taking steps to prevent a repetition of the problem.

"The account it came from has been closed and we're checking the servers every 10 minutes and no emails are coming out. We are contacting all the people we know on the list and trying to help them," Nightingale said. ®

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