Until the the government can reveal the real risk to the security of its latest projects, should users remain suspicious, says Simon Moores
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 US Department of Justice has discovered that spam has been originating from hundreds of the most powerful computers at the Department of Defense and the US 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.
Last year, 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, despite the US government's investments in security, it discovered that worrying numbers of often sensitive systems have been hijacked by the shadowy world of the internet for immoral purposes.
Here in the UK we aren’t so prepared to reveal or even discuss the extent of a problem which can’t be unique to the US.
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 multibillion-pound NHS national programme for IT and the continued expansion of e-government and an identity card project. All three involve sensitive and personal information and could conceivably find its way onto a system shared by an unwelcome visitor.
This may be an exaggerated view of the problem, 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 5% and 10% 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 US 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.
Acting globally, Zentelligence (Research) advises governments, suppliers, business and the media on the evolution, application and delivery of leading-edge technologies, and specialises in the areas of e-government and information security.
For further information on Zentelligence and its research, presentation and analyst services, visit www.zentelligence.com
Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of leading industry analyst Dr Simon Moores of Zentelligence.
This was first published in September 2004