YOU are the threat: True confessions of real-life sysadmins

Who will save the systems from the men and women who save the systems from you?

Some sysadmins will go to extremes to secure a network, viewing it (wrongly) as their property.

For proof, look no further than Terry Childs, the City of San Francisco sysadmin who lost his job and subsequently refused to give over the system's virtual keys to his superiors in 2008.

It took just under a million dollars, several weeks, and the concerted efforts of several equipment vendors to put things right.

Childs had configured the equipment (predominantly Cisco) so securely that not only did no other administrator have rights to the switches and routers, but configs were not saved – so any power loss or attempt to reboot the switch or router into recovery mode would not work.

Childs ended up serving four years' jail time. It was also generally assumed that his management also bore some responsibility for what happened and the way in which they handled the situation, ie, very badly! For businesses big and small the question becomes how does one actually defend or monitor these threats, real or perceived?

It is not always directly the administrator’s intention to do wrong. Sometimes a wrong command executed against the system can take out an entire infrastructure. Earlier this year we read about a university that saw an entire portion of its network destroyed when a wrong command was apparently given.

"One admin said that given the right amount, he would compromise the system. Interestingly, the administrator stated that the amount had to be big enough so that they would not have to work again. This decision was based on the fact no one would ever employ them again."

This kind of error is not unusual and I have seen it happen several times over the years. There is a certain amount of mitigation that can be done to help to reduce the possibility of such a failure. Basic steps include reviewing the system defaults, using intelligent settings and having elevated accounts for just this sort of action. Frequently, you will find that the program makers' version of "sane defaults" and sysadmins' versions of sane defaults are very different!

Digital spycraft

The final portion of this threat is what one could term “digital spy craft.” Everyone knows about United States Army soldier Bradley Manning and rogue NSA sysadmin Edward Snowden. The decisions they made were their own and they exposed damaging government secrets.

The scary fact is that everyone has a price and it isn't always a monetary one.

This is a fact that should scare administrators as principles and beliefs are not always obvious or easy to defend against.

I gathered a small group of admins who were prepared to talk informally and without attribution. The conversation lasted two hours and we talked about if they’d done anything and why.

The session revealed attitudes towards system compromises or handing over information that they shouldn't have.

Most system administrators said they would not compromise their principles or systems for any price. A few administrators, however, said that they would do so for the right price.

Silly money

One admin said that given the right amount, he would compromise the system. Interestingly, the administrator stated that the amount had to be big enough so that they would not have to work again. This decision was based on the fact no one would ever employ them again.

Some administrators saw it as a purely commercial decision based on the fact that even if they were caught, they would think of jail time as time out before they could collect on their ill-gotten gains. (All the above was based on the premise that the loot would be available after any incarcerations.) The general figures mentioned by those prepared to compromise systems were between 10 to 20 million in local currency.

According to one: “If I manage to get the money in such a way that I can reasonably hide it and use it when I get out… what's five years in the big house?”

One overriding aspect was that not one administrator would compromise critical life support systems, no matter what the price. There was also a sentiment of exactly the opposite where banks and multi-nationals were concerned.

As noted, not all systems administrators are driven by monetary gain. One administrator I spoke with, whom we will call Joe, had an interesting story. After he grew tired of non-stop cold calling by an offshore company selling a junk product and getting nowhere with pleas to stop, he decided to teach them a lesson.


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