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Houston Courts Shut Down By Malware 126

Posted by timothy
from the full-employment-for-compsec-types dept.
Conficker is still at it: dstates writes "The municipal courts of Houston were shut down yesterday after a computer virus spread through the courts' computer systems. The shutdown canceled hearings and suspended arrests for minor offenses and is expected to extend through Monday. The disruption affected many city departments, the Houston Emergency Center was briefly disconnected and police temporarily stopped making some arrests for minor offenses. The infection appears to be contained to 475 of the city's more than 16,000 computers, but officials are still investigating. Gray Hat Research, a technology security company, has been brought in on an emergency contract to eradicate the infection. In 2006, the City spent $10M to install a new computer system and bring the Courts online, but the system has been beset by multiple problems. After threatening litigation, the city reached a $5 million settlement with the original vendor, Maximus, and may seek another vendor."
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Houston Courts Shut Down By Malware

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  • Oops (Score:5, Funny)

    by symbolset (646467) on Saturday February 07, 2009 @05:37PM (#26766913) Journal

    It's amazing what can happen when you "lose" a few dozen pen drives with downadup at various strategic places.

    • Re:Oops (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Z00L00K (682162) on Saturday February 07, 2009 @05:54PM (#26767017) Homepage

      Especially since today almost every computer is delivered with autorun enabled.

      We have seen far too many malicious attacks due to the fact that someone thought that it has to be "user friendly". But some of that user friendliness is just plain annoying and raises the blood pressure. Just because I have a few pictures on my stick doesn't mean that I want to view them every time I stick it in.

      The problem is that "user friendly" often means "attack friendly".

      • by Kalriath (849904) *

        Actually no. Not speaking for anything else, but Windows no longer autoruns anything - it asks if you'd like to run whatever is on the disc. So this means that any issue there is user driven.

        (By the way, to turn off that whole thing with the pictures, select "Do Nothing" next time you insert the stick and tick the "Do this every time" checkbox - if you don't have this, update Windows)

        • Re:Oops (Score:5, Funny)

          by symbolset (646467) on Saturday February 07, 2009 @06:42PM (#26767373) Journal
          10 million zombies can't be wrong.
        • Re:Oops (Score:5, Informative)

          by Sopor42 (1134277) on Saturday February 07, 2009 @06:50PM (#26767447)
          Just to clarify... the process is slightly more involved if the drive in question has "more than one type of content", even if fully up to date, b/c then Windows (XP) doesn't give you the "do this every time" option. For that you have to actually access the drive properties autoplay tab, select "mixed content" then "select an action to perform" and then "take no action" and finally apply/ok.
          • Thanks! The fact that 'do this every time' option has been disabled for a couple of my devices has been driving me nuts.
          • Now all you have to do is get all 13,000 City of Houston employees to do that and that part of the problem is solved. At least it is for city of Houston employees. But then there's all the other installation methods including RPC. And the other million pieces of malware. And the millions of other computers.

            It's easier just to get a mac.

            • Re:Cool (Score:4, Insightful)

              by techno-vampire (666512) on Saturday February 07, 2009 @09:33PM (#26768403) Homepage
              But then there's all the other installation methods including RPC.

              If you're going to roll out a large-scale installation, you do the install on one box, get everything tweaked just the way you need it, then ghost it to the rest of the boxes. I'd think it was clear by now that turning off autorun should be one of the tweaks you do by reflex before ghosting.

              • You obviously don't mean the city of Hoston.

                Apparently lots of people don't do all of the best practice mods before they clone. Those people shold get a mac - for their protection and ours.

          • by rdnetto (955205)

            Actually, he was referring to Vista - say what you want about its blaot and compatibility, it is way more secure than its predecessors in terms of UAC and changes like this.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Kalriath,
          Um, I hate to tell you this but you are WRONG.

          I just got done installing MS SBS 2k3 sp3 and I gotta tell ya I was FLOORED when I inserted a driver CD and the autorun on it came up.

          Autorun, on by default, ON A FREAKING SERVER!!!

          It also took 4.5 hours to install itself (I only had to change CD 3 times)on a 1tb partition on a quad core machine with 8gb.

          Fuck this, I'm going back to Novell!

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          I don't know if my comment will do any good, as what I am about to say has been said in every story about conficker/downadup here, but here goes.

          It is actually not possible to disable autorun by normal means. Autorun always runs, by design (Microsoft is still claiming that this is not a misfeature). It still runs, parsing the autorun.inf and performing every action up until the running an executable or autoplaying.

          Saying that the issue is "user driven" is technically accurate but woefully misleading. Autoru

    • by yog (19073) * on Saturday February 07, 2009 @05:59PM (#26767065) Homepage Journal
      I thought courts were a sort of mecca for low tech methods. They use court stenographers, video taping is very limited, and it's all based on the spoken word. It's not like the prosecutor is going to talk through a Powerpoint presentation to make his/her case. Or do they allow this these days? I don't go to courtrooms very often....

      From the article:

      The $10 million effort by Maximus Inc. to bring the courtâ(TM)s activities online was immediately troublesome to judges, clerks and prosecutors and delayed court proceedings in 2006. After threatening litigation, the city reached a $5 million settlement with Maximus and may seek another vendor.

      It sounds like this whole computerization effort was poorly executed from the get-go. Many such projects have problems, since they typically pit bumbling bureaucrats against shark-like consultants.

      Anyway maybe they ought to take the database and just pull out the pending cases using ad hoc queries, and send the print-outs to the courthouse so they can get on with their work. This can't be rocket science here.

      • by John Hasler (414242) on Saturday February 07, 2009 @07:08PM (#26767565) Homepage

        I thought courts were a sort of mecca for low tech methods.

        Not true, at least for US Federal as well as many state and local courts.

        They use court stenographers...

        Who have been using computers for twenty years to my certain knowledge.

        ...video taping is very limited...

        Video tape depositions are routine.

        ...and it's all based on the spoken word.

        Actually it's mostly based on the written word. It is the court record that matters, and that means what the stenographer keyed into her computer in addition to the orders signed by the judge and the documents filed by the parties.

        It's not like the prosecutor is going to talk through a Powerpoint presentation to make his/her case.

        Yes, as a matter of fact, it can be rather like that. And many Federal courts require that filings be made in electronic form. Here is a link [uscourts.gov].

        • They use court stenographers...

          "Who have been using computers for twenty years to my certain knowledge."

          The statement "... using computers for twenty years..." may give an erroneous impression. They've been using extremely proprietary and poorly designed computer programs for that long. The programs are proprietary so that the makers can get as much money as possible, and that limits access.

          Quote from the site to which you linked: "Appellate ECF Filer Registration -- The U.S. Courts of Appeals and Bankruptcy Appellate Panels are b

      • by Elbowgeek (633324)

        Speaking of low-tech in the court system, it was only in the past eight years that they finally started using stenographers in Bermuda's courts. Previously judges would write the proceedings in long-hand, making any case unbearably slow to unfold.

    • Re:Oops (Score:5, Insightful)

      by INT_QRK (1043164) on Saturday February 07, 2009 @07:12PM (#26767593)
      This may seem a little orthogonal. However, the municipal court system is the core instrument of government power to the average citizen. So, how does it ensure that a vendor doesn't place itself in a position to now "own" the court's IT, able to covertly violate confidentiality, integrity and availability of critical court records at will? Thinks of how a well-resourced entity like a drug cartel might have incentives to subvert a court system, becoming, in essence, an "insider" to the system. Certainly at the federal level agencies like the DoD, for example, also use private vendors (albeit highly vetted), but they also conduct extensive in-house testing throughout development and across the life cycle through via certification and accreditation regimes (e.g., DIACAP: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DIACAP [wikipedia.org]). Municipalities lack such resources and are at the mercy to a "low bidder," esecially one that doesn't need to turn a profit from the primary customer but is able to offset that in spades by secondary and tertiary "silent partner" customers. Should we consider, perhaps extending federal IT resources down to local levels?
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by John Hasler (414242)

        > Should we consider, perhaps extending federal IT resources down to local levels?

        And give the Feds complete control? I'll take the drug lords, thank you.

        • by INT_QRK (1043164)
          Understand your sentiment (and humor), but what about some federal security regime extended to the local level, a Common Criteria/NIAP-like consortium (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NIAP) of private testers and labs that maintain a C&A system, with government controlled audits and oversight, for example?
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by John Hasler (414242)

            After all, look at what a superb record the Federal agencies themselves have established.

            No, thanks. All the necessary standards and information are already public. Centralization doesn't scale.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I hear you have an opening...

  • by Anonymous Coward

    suspended arrests for minor offenses and is expected to extend through Monday

    Wow, so for all of 2-3 days, Americans living in Houston can actually live without fear of being arrested for things that we shouldn't be paying law enforcement tax payers' money to enforce? Hurry up and smoke your marijuana, Texans! Quick now, before the law gets back on its feet and decides to poke its head into your private, personal business.

    • by timmarhy (659436)
      unfortunately many people that smoke weed don't keep it private at all. if they did they wouldn't be getting caught now would they?
  • Houston court (Your mums PC), was shutdown by malware, and Gray Hat Research (You) were brought in on an emergency contract (Called up from the basement) to eradicate the infection (reinstall windows XP)

  • MS Monoculture (Score:5, Insightful)

    by NtroP (649992) on Saturday February 07, 2009 @05:47PM (#26766983)
    The monoculture strikes again! My heart is bleeding peanut-butter right now. Having all your eggs in one basket (especially Microsoft's) is never a good idea.
  • Gray Hat? (Score:2, Funny)

    by Afforess (1310263)
    Is Houston being smart by hiring a company called "Gray Hat [wikipedia.org] Research"?
    • by cffrost (885375)

      Is Houston being smart by hiring a company called "Gray Hat Research"?

      Given the choice, I'd probably choose a grey-hat good ol' boy over a white-hat good ol' boy. [media-imdb.com]

      Texas might even get results employing one of their local black-hats. [imageshack.us]

  • After threatening litigation, the city reached a $5 million settlement with the original vendor, Maximus

    IANAL, but I suspect defending yourself in court against the city (with the city representing the court) could be difficult.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by John Hasler (414242)

      > IANAL

      This is very clear.

      > but I suspect defending yourself in court against the city (with the city representing
      > the court) could be difficult.

      Companies routinely litigate contract disputes with governments. This case would be heard in state court.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    This story has nothing to do with Australia.

    If I ever want to read about places besides Australia, I'll go to another site, thanks.

    How much longer are we going to have to endure the non Australia-centric Slashdot?

    Where the hell is kdawson?

  • by StuartHankins (1020819) on Saturday February 07, 2009 @05:59PM (#26767061)
    I wonder, what operating system(s) were compromised by this infection?

    Could it be -- say it isn't -- yet another outbreak of infestations on Windows machines?

    If people haven't learned by this point not to trust Windows machines with anything critical, they deserve what they get. It's no longer a matter of ignorance as these things have been widely documented for decades.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by utahtb (1449067)
      Honestly, though, what can you do? Sure, you could put open source stuff in place of windows, but the business functionality just isn't there. The real trade-offs of business vs. security are vexing and not easy.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Darkness404 (1287218)
        This is the US Government we are talking about, if they have the spare cash to throw away billions of dollars in taxpayer money in cooperate bailout/stimulus money, I'm sure they have enough money to improve OSS. Heck, just take about half what they spend in software licenses and use that to further OSS, sounds like a good trade-off doesn't it?
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by HiThere (15173)

        Which specific business functionality do you have in mind? I admit there are some. (Tax software comes to mind.) But if you aren't specific I can't be certain that you are being stupid, and must merely presume that.

        There are reasons to choose MSWind. Some are even valid. I have a MSWind95 machine that I keep isolated from the net. But there aren't very many. And the ones that I most commonly hear about are just people being stupid and prejudiced.

    • by painehope (580569) on Saturday February 07, 2009 @06:29PM (#26767289)

      Windows, of course. It's what every single computer that I've seen in any court, jail, or police station in Houston (and Harris County, which Houston is in) runs.

      And I've seen more than a few...

      Interestingly, courts are pretty technical down here. The employees are still as dumb, but if you're in Houston City Jail, you don't even see a judge or talk to anyone in person (other than Johnny Law). The pre-trial personnel speak to you via a telephone or a speaker in the wall of the room, you don't even see their faces in the newer city jail. Both jails the judges are linked in on a high-resolution screen, whether it's your actual court (for City, not County) or just a probable cause arraignment (which, not surprisingly, never releases anyone, no matter how ridiculous the evidence is).

      Harris County is technical in the court, but if you're just talking to your lawyer in the court holding cell, you don't even see the inside of a courtroom.

      Of course, Fort Bend County (where I live) is so non-technical it's hilarious. I was jammed up in their system over Thanksgiving (no bonds or releases on holidays - I was in there for a damn class C misdemeanor, and sat 3 days), and got a visit from my father. The moron cops actually used their network closet as a holding tank for prisoners awaiting room in visitation. I was alone in there at one point, staring at a dusty Cisco router that was at least ten years old, plus what could only have been their video system (which looked even older). I was so tempted to just rearrange cables...until I thought about how long it might take them to find someone to fix it, and how that might effect my release (which was scheduled for the next day).

      Of course, the plus side to my county is that judges actually see you face-to-face, and will release you if it's a bullshit case. Much preferable to a high-tech system with no justice at all.

    • by Skapare (16644)

      It tells you what they are running.

      The previous reply didn't show up, but it won't let me re-post it unless I change it. So this part is just the change.

    • Re: (Score:1, Redundant)

      by phulegart (997083)

      Did you know...
      The Microsoft Malicious Software Removal Tool now removes Antivirus 2009 and it's variants? That means as long as people update Windows, they is a measure of protection offered. However, if people do not understand that they must make sure that Windows is up to date by actually running the update utility, how are they going to keep their system protected?

      I currently make a living removing spyware and malware from infected machines. Did you know that the majority of people think that malwar

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Sabriel (134364)

        Sometimes the problem is between keyboard and chair, but sometimes that chair was the developer's. If the system had been designed properly in the first place...

        I've seen enough machines where bloody Windows Updates has silently failed (or pegged the CPU) that I'd love to hit the idiots responsible for releasing it into the wild with a clue by four.

        I mean, seriously. If you were responsible for Windows Update, knowing it would be integral to the safe and proper operation of millions of computers worldw

      • by Rerracoon (955669)
        Sometimes the problem is in the chairs of the County's Commissioners. Here in Dallas County we don't have an IT Department. NONE! For a system second in size only to Houston's. There is NO BUDGET for one! It's cheaper to just let the systems be and contract for repairs when needed. They use "WebSense" to act as our Firewall and block access to most of the internet, INCLUDING Microsoft Update! Most systems here have NO SERVICE PACKS installed because they are not allowed to connect to outside sites via port
  • Just write and spread malware that targets computers at the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice (along with everyone else's computers) on a date that's at some point into your sentence. Put code in the payload that searches for prison doors to open, in case we are infecting some controller they might be using. A long time ago before computers you had to tie four horses to the walls and bars of the jail and just try to pull the place apart without the ceiling collapsing on your friends' heads.

    • Are you hoping that the guards will also be infected by your malware?
    • by painehope (580569) on Saturday February 07, 2009 @06:46PM (#26767403)

      Hate to break this to you, but TDCJ is state jail and prison (two separate entities, only handles felons). Entirely separate from Houston City courts (which only handle class C misdemeanor sentences and traffic ticket fines - no one stays in City Jail longer than a week) or Harris County Jail (up to 18 months, IIRC, and still a separate entity). And the only thing your idea would do is cause a riot.

      Not that it wouldn't break the monotony. But the chain link fences topped with barbed wire, armed guards, and mechanical systems wouldn't be effected in the least. TDCJ is a lot less technical than city/county jails. It's a prison, after all, not a local jail.

      • Hate to break this to you, but TDCJ is state jail and prison (two separate entities, only handles felons). Entirely separate from Houston City courts (which only handle class C misdemeanor sentences and traffic ticket fines - no one stays in City Jail longer than a week) or Harris County Jail (up to 18 months, IIRC, and still a separate entity).

        You know, this is really Informative.

  • Or, rather, not. Pissed, as in drunk. This would be a great weekend to go out, get as drunk as I want, and not have to worry about spending the night in the drunk tank (Public Intoxication is a one-night stay in Houston, just plead no contest and you're out the next day).

    But, no, I have to have a cold (just like about everyone else I know).

    Shit!

  • ...using Free software to fix this problem.

    Maybe.

  • by CNothing (1164365) on Saturday February 07, 2009 @06:12PM (#26767147)

    It's as if a thousand bureaucrats cried out "Houston, we have a problem" in terror, and were suddenly silenced.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 07, 2009 @06:31PM (#26767301)

    Ok, so if these computers were used solely for official business, there wouldn't be this big of an issue. Lower paid workers tend not to have computers or internet at home, so they use work systems for "surfing." No internet access and email should only be via highly filtered webmail. USB, DVD drives and floppies locked off with zero access.

    I used to work in Telecom. Our biggest malware/virus issues were at E911 centers even when the computers were on a dedicated network without any non-911 access. The nationwide 911 system doesn't use IP, so the problems didn't come from outside each 911 center. Those folks were paid $8/hr by cities and were under constant virus and malware attack from workers bringing programs in on diskettes, CDs and USB drives.

    The other problem is the lack of understanding that many municipalities have over computer system maintenance. Many localities are smart and cautious, while many others treat work systems like home systems and hope for the best. Some have decided to provide free municiple wifi internet access with the same network their police and emergency services use for remote access. fools.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Darkness404 (1287218)

      Ok, so if these computers were used solely for official business, there wouldn't be this big of an issue. Lower paid workers tend not to have computers or internet at home, so they use work systems for "surfing." No internet access and email should only be via highly filtered webmail. USB, DVD drives and floppies locked off with zero access.

      I can see this being a major no-go with the employees. What happens when they need to legitimately look up something on the web for their job? No CDs or USB drives can also be a major problem, what happens when the e-mail server is down for maintenance and someone needs to send a file? Etc.

      The most logical solution would be Linux. Sure, no system is 100% secure, but show me a single major virus/worm outbreak on Linux that an ordinary (as in, not administrator) would be able to be infected with. The fa

  • by Skapare (16644)

    It tells you what they are running.

  • back to Windows. Hmmmm, which flavor? I could choose W98, for it's lack of security model, or WXP (sp1) for it's failure to adhere to common sense security model, or Vista for it's infuriatingly intrusive security, or Win7 for it's unique beta insecurities. I KNOW!! I'll do ALL OF THEM AGAIN!!! (Who wants to be left out of the newest viral infection, anyway?)
  • But emacs opened it as a dump of a binary file. I was bummed that they couldn't take the time to send me a proper virus for my architecture.
  • See . . . (Score:5, Funny)

    by sunspot42 (455706) on Saturday February 07, 2009 @07:08PM (#26767569)

    After threatening litigation, the city reached a $5 million settlement with the original vendor, Maximus, and may seek another vendor."

    That's what happens when you buy your network from a vendor just because you liked their SimCity games.

    • The makers of SimCity bring you our latest product:

      SimJail!

      Argue your cases to keep the bad guys locked up!
      Manage your guards properly, or the criminals will take over and break out.
      Give your convicted parking violators life sentences!

      (We were planning on having a mode for you to play the bad guy and kill the cops, but we figured RockStar already had that market sewn up.....)

      Buy it now!

  • Governments across this country are trying to fully phase in computers. It can't work.
  • Inside Job! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Darkk (1296127) on Saturday February 07, 2009 @07:30PM (#26767733)

    They can have the best firewalls and anti-virus e-mail scanner on the planet but it takes ONE person with an infected laptop to plug it into the internal network and do it's dirty work without them knowing it in time.

    It's possible they have been infected for months and didn't know it until things started to act funny.

    To have that many PCs infected didn't surprise me as they didn't bother to take proper security precautions and audits. System admins didn't routinely check for viruses on their servers and didn't check their logs for anything out of the ordinary is asking for trouble.

    I guess the system admins there figured, "Well, long as nobody is complaining about anything we're golden." It's possible they have a very small IT staff and outsource the security details to the vendor who they bought the system from who they are putting the blame on?

    We have a security firewall appliance at work that does just about everything but I don't rely on it 100% to make sure it's doing it's job. I go through the logs daily and test it. Just have to be proactive on finding problems and fix it before anybody else notices it.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Darkness404 (1287218)
      Yes, thats true and a good sysadmin should be checking the logs, but reporting threats that aren't a major issue can make a computer-illiterate CEO think that it was your fault for the security breaches, a major outbreak of malware though is very easy to blame on "hackers", "pirates" and anything else you want to lay the blame on.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        A computer illiterate or budget conscious CEO or manager can also deliberately block upgrades to core systems that may require man-hours, hardware upgrades, or programmer time to test and integrate the upgrades despite known security risks, judged to be less dangerous than interfering with active services. I've had this happen, repeatedly, and try to be very careful to get my security concerns in writing in the hands of my manager, their manager, and an outside party so that I can establish that I've done m

  • Don't let users run as admins. if you have programs that don't behave well in a least-priviledge environment, you can use privilegemanager http://www.beyondtrust.com/ [beyondtrust.com] I have used it in networks both large and small and it works very well. No spyware or viruses for over 5 years on a wide variety of Windows-based networks. Next best thing to switching to Linux.
  • by Hordeking (1237940) on Saturday February 07, 2009 @09:32PM (#26768397)

    I just have to make sure the court jurisdiction where I'm in trouble gets a major virus infection so that they suspend arrests for minor offenses (why are they making arrests for minor things?) and put off trials.

    It's pure simplicity!

  • by Sfing_ter (99478) on Saturday February 07, 2009 @10:16PM (#26768587) Homepage Journal

    The mayor had just purchased a site license for AV360, this should not have happened... ahem. Wonder if they can cancel that check that they wrote with QuackBooks 2009 and the official letters sent out with EMESS Werd 2009... hmmmmm...

  • Spreading actual physical papers on cars with a fake parking fine notification with links to a Web site to resolve the ticket issue where the site just dumps malware on the victim.

    Now the infection of a court system.

    Best way to take down a government today would be by taking down their computer systems.

    Skynet did it on "Terminator" a few episodes ago - sent a guy back through time to insert a "roving backdoor" onto the government's systems, so once Skynet gets created it will have immediate access to govern

  • So which type of Linux are they running in Houston?

    Sounds like they need to switch distros.

  • by eli pabst (948845) on Sunday February 08, 2009 @02:38AM (#26770219)
    rm -rf juryduty
  • "...and may seek another vendor."

    Macs maybe?

It's a poor workman who blames his tools.

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