City missed steps to avoid network lockout

Loss of administrative control of San Fran's routers and switches for over a week could have been avoided.

The high-profile sabotage this month of the city of San Francisco's fiber backbone network clearly shows both the extent of damage a disgruntled employee can cause and the need for controls to mitigate the risk of such actions.

City officials lost administrative control of the network's routers and switches for more than a week after an IT worker allegedly reset passwords and refused to reveal them prior to and after his arrest on July 13.

Terry Childs, a network administrator in the city's Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DTIS), was charged with locking up the network and with planting network devices that enabled illegal remote access to the network. The FiberWAN system carries almost 60% of the city government's traffic.

(See Computerworld's feature Why San Francisco's network admin went rogue)

He revealed the passwords to Mayor Gavin Newsom last Monday, but the administrators remained locked out of the city's VoIP system and some departmental LANs late last week.

Users and analysts interviewed last week said that the city could have avoided the recent turmoil by implementing stronger configuration management techniques along with processes that could quickly detect when someone was attempting to bypass network controls.

"I am completely floored that it [would take] so long to restore access to the equipment," said Jim Kirby, senior network engineer at DataWare Services, a Sioux Falls, S.D.-based IT services provider. "Unless they have some crazy uptime requirement that prevents them from rebooting gear, it's hard to understand."

Kirby suggested that anytime it takes more than 48 hours to restore access to a locked-down network, that indicates that "basic network administration standards" are not in place.

Johannes Ullrich, chief technology officer at the Bethesda, Md.-based SANS Institute's Internet Storm Center, noted that even though insider threats are difficult to control, strong network configuration management processes and a policy of separating duties can help.

In this case, the city's inability to regain access to the network for at least 10 days suggests that San Francisco has no backup copies of its network configuration blueprint.

Strong configuration management processes ensure that "an alert is sent whenever a configuration is changed," Ullrich said.

The San Francisco incident should also convince IT that two or three administrators must understand the full network configuration and jointly control the passwords, said John Pescatore, an analyst at Gartner Inc.

He suggested that, at a minimum, password information should be documented and stored for easy access by an organization's privileged administrators.

Lou Michael, director of network and infrastructure services in Virginia's Arlington County department of technology services, said his organization has a long-standing practice of keeping passwords with multiple administrators.

Meanwhile, Ron Vinson, deputy director of San Francisco's DTIS operation, said last week that the agency has started preparing a systemwide analysis to determine the extent of Childs' activities.

Vinson acknowledged that by late last week, municipal IT managers had still not determined exactly how many devices were illegally installed on the WAN to enable remote access.

Arshad Noor, CEO of StrongAuth, a supplier of compliance and identity management products, said the San Francisco incident points to a failure by the city's IT managers.

"All in all, IT management is responsible for this mess, because it was their mandate to avoid this situation," Noor said. "While Terry Childs might pay for this situation through jail time or fines, management cannot be absolved of their responsibility."

Childs, 43, continues to be held in a city jail on US$5 million bail after his request to reduce the bond was rejected last Wednesday.

Childs has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges in connection with the case. A pretrial hearing has been set for Sept. 24.

Robert McMillan of the IDG News Service contributed to this story.

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