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Call me Paranoid But…

You may remember my suspicions from last week, that the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) porn problem might be the tip of a much larger iceberg among public sector and university computers. This week however, my attention has been drawn to a report from Netcraft that reveals that the U.S. Department of Justice has discovered that spam has been originating from hundreds of the most powerful computers at the Department of Defense and the U.S. Senate.

Apparently the machines in question had become "zombies" that had been compromised by hackers and integrated into “bot networks” that can be remotely controlled to send spam or launch distributed denial of service attacks.

In many respects, this kind of revelation is no longer news; it has become part of the background noise in a world which is increasingly prepared to accept the compromise of vital public-sector systems as a fact of life. Over a year ago, in a special Computer Weekly report, “A Matter of Trust”, that coincided with the 2003 Infosec Show, I expressed my concern, that few people in government were prepared to guess at the level of potential compromise facing our own public sector systems, here in the UK, and although many brave words have been spoken from government offices on the subject of information assurance, there was a sense that here was a question that many Whitehall departments would rather see unasked.

On the other side of the Atlantic and in the interests of “Homeland Security” and the fight against cyber crime the Americans have, for all their investments in security, discovered that worrying numbers of often sensitive systems have been hijacked by the shadowy world of the Internet for immoral purposes.

Here in Britain, we aren’t so prepared to reveal or even discuss the extent of a problem which can’t be unique to the United States. In all fairness, it’s more than likely that we simply don’t know how many of our own government systems might have been compromised, beyond the standard annual reporting on hacking and intrusion attempts. For me, this is doubly worrying because we are about to pin our flag to a multi-billion NHS, National Programme for IT (NPfIT) and the continued expansion of eGovernment and an identity card project, all three of which involve sensitive and personal information, which might conceivably find its way onto a system shared by an unwelcome visitor.

Alright, it’s an exaggerated view of the problem, I agree and all new government systems are secure, as I’m sure you will agree but I’m naturally averse to the idea of building anything resembling a critical infrastructure on an environment which might be open to compromise.

I have yet to find anyone who strongly disagrees with my estimate that between five and ten per cent of consumer and small business broadband-connected personal computers, the bulk of the end user population in this country, may be part of someone else’s ‘bot-net’. If we extrapolate the American experience and a lower figure to the public sector, factoring in the kind of surfing revealed at the DWP, we’re still left with the possibility that an uncomfortable number of systems may be carrying inappropriate materials or indeed, may be sleeping partners in a much larger “bot network.”

This is of course pure speculation but it would be nice if I could find someone prepared to tell me that the suggestion is paranoid rubbish. It would make me feel much better about the future of so many large government IT projects.


Diane said…'s all just speculation and a complete load of codswallop. (Not really, but it's supposed to make you feel better?!!

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