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Houston justice system laid low by Conficker worm

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The justice system in Houston was thrown into disarray late last week after the infamous Conficker (Downadup) worm infected key systems.

The infection forced municipal courts in the Texan city to shut down on Friday, and police had to temporarily stop making arrests for minor offences, such as those for outstanding traffic warrants or minor drug possession. "The people we pull over with outstanding traffic warrants will be issued a citation rather than being taken to jail," explained Houston Police Department spokesman John Cannon. "Anyone suspected of a violent crime will be taken to jail. We’re not cutting back on that."

Meanwhile, bail bonds agencies report that the process of releasing prisoners and handling bond payments has slowed to a crawl.

Problems with Houston's municipal systems started on Wednesday, as computers slowed down while staff struggled to access some files, according to local reports. The problem grew progressively worse. Court staff were forced to resort to pen and paper backup systems before Mayor Bill White ordered the courts to close early on Friday afternoon and stay shut over the weekend, when cases would normally be heard.

Administrators expect the disruption to extend into Monday, and possibly later. Court hearings will be postponed but the public offices of the courts will be open to handle fine payments and public inquiries.

Representatives of the Houston IT department said that the computer infection has been contained within the municipal court and parking management systems. Other systems have been quarantined as a precaution. Emergency response systems, for example, are up and running but operating as a stand-alone system so that emergency dispatch requests are being made by radio calls rather than through computers.

Officials reckon that the infection has been contained to 475 machines on Houston's 16,000 computer network, The Houston Chronicle reports. The city paid $25,000 to call in external security consultants Gray Hat Research to help sort out the mess on Friday. Janis Benton, the city’s deputy director of information technology, named the Conficker worm as the probable cause of the infection.

The Houston Chronicle reports that the shutdown of the municipal court computer system is only the latest chapter in a string of problems to befall the system since it was commissioned in April 2006. The $10m system was blamed for delaying court proceedings in 2006. After threatening a lawsuit, the city agreed a $5m settlement with contractor with Maximus.

Conficker, which exploits unpatched Windows machines and network shares to spread, among other techniques, has infected 10 million computers worldwide. Enterprises have been hardest hit by the infection, with the health department in New Zealand, hospital systems in Sheffield and defense systems in France among those affected. ®

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