Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Computer Viruses Are Not Destroying State Government

It appears that the big computer virus problems in state government Secretary of State Mary Herrera's told us about yesterday might not be such big problems afterall -- at least for state government.

Of the two examples she gave earlier this week, one appears to have been exaggerated, while the other — the apparent theft of $700,000 by computer hackers — involved a victim that was not a state agency.

The SOS was responding to reports that Herrera’s own laptop had been infected by viruses that put unwanted links to pornography sites on the desktop of her computer. Other computers in her office have been hit with viruses also, including one that sent numerous “spam” e-mails from a Secretary of State account.

“Information technology professions in various executive and legislative agencies of state government have reported numerous malware attacks in recent months,” a Tuesday news release from Herrera’s office said.

“The New Mexico Educational Assistance Foundation system was even compromised by a malware package ...” The release goes on to explain how hackers were able to get a password and other information and make numerous transfers from the foundation’s bank account. The money lost totaled about $700,000.

That much is true Woody Farber, president of the foundation. The loss to the operating fund occurred just last month. However, NMEAF is a private non-profit, Farber said and while working with the state Department of Higher Education, it is not part of government. “We’re working with the FBI and Bank of the West,” Farber said.

Herrera’s news release also spoke of a “malware intrusion” at the state Legislature’s website, which infected “the legislative bill analysis site, which could have easily spread to other frequent users, including government agencies, businesses and other public users.”

But John Yaeger of the Legislative Council said Wednesday that while a possible malware intrusion was detected a few months ago, the presence of a virus never was verified.

“We did get a report from (the state Department of Information Technology) that our web server may have had some minor malware on it — something that would have impacted a user’s ability to open PDFs,” Yaeger said. “We ran the prescribed fixes and then a scan that showed a clean bill of health. All resolved in a day.”

The problem initially was reported by a state employee — who was having trouble opening some documents on the site — to DoIT, Yaeger said. The Legislative Council received no other complaints about the website that day, he said and there was no other indication of computer trouble.

The Secretary of State was correct that there have been numerous attacks — or at least attempted attacks — on state computers. According to the April DOiT newsletter, “ During the month of March, DoIT blocked approximately 300,000 critical attacks. DoIT cyber security sends out notifications to agency CIO and security staff when an attack is detected.”

Marlin Mackey, the secretary of DOiT, told a reporter Wednesday that his agency does not maintain the computer system for the Secretary of State’s Office or the Legislature — though his staff does offer assistance to those and other state agencies that have their own systems.

Mackey said his agency has recommended the Secretary of State hire forensics computer specialists, such as those at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, to help with its virus problems.