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Agency destroys $170K worth of IT gear over non-existent malware threat

Jaikumar Vijayan | July 11, 2013
Another $3 million worth of equipment at the Economic Development Administration would have met same fate but for lack of funds.

The U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration (EDA) destroyed about $170,000 worth of IT equipment including computers, printers, keyboards and computer mice last year on the mistaken belief that the systems were irreparably compromised by malware.

The bureau was poised to destroy an additional $3 million worth of IT equipment but was prevented from doing so by a lack of funding for the effort, a report released by the Commerce Department's Inspector General says.

The EDA's startling overreaction to an imagined threat to its networks appears to have stemmed from an almost comical series of miscommunications between computer security incident handlers at the Department of Commerce and at the EDA.

The problems started with an alert issued by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in Dec. 2011, warning the Commerce Department of a potential malware infection within its networks. Security administrators at the Commerce Department identified the potentially infected computers as belonging to the EDA and alerted the bureau of the compromise.

However, the Department's initial notification to the EDA incorrectly listed a total of 146 systems as being potentially infected, when in fact just two of them were actually infected.

A day later, the computer incident response team at the Commerce Department sent a second e-mailed incident notification to the EDA containing new analysis that identified only two systems as being infected with malware. However, the second notification was vague and did not clearly call out the fact that the first alert had been inaccurate, according to the Inspector General's report.

Instead, the second alert actually began by stating that the first notification had in fact been accurate and made no mention of any mistake in the previously provided information. Subsequently, incident handlers at the EDA assumed that the second notification was merely a confirmation of the analysis in the first alert and proceeded to assume that a major portion of their network had been compromised.

Over the next several weeks, incident response teams at the Commerce Department and EDA continued to work with a completely different understanding of the scope of the problem. The incident response team at Commerce assumed that their counterparts at the EDA had read and understood that the second notification superseded the initial incorrect alert while the EDA continued laboring under the belief that 146 of its systems had been compromised.

The EDA's impressions of a widespread compromise appeared to be confirmed when a forensic analysis of two systems showed them to be infected with malware. So, when the Commerce Department eventually asked the EDA to reimage its systems in order to get rid of the malware, the EDA responded by saying that there were too many systems involved for such reimaging to be feasible.


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