The city of New Orleans just got attacked and that made me think of the song about a train by the same name, whose chorus opens with that line… but this time, the question lacks the soft charm and slow nostalgia of Steve Goodman’s folk song. This time, the question is cold, jarring, unnerving. It’s not the first major US city to be attacked and made to be dark and it won’t be the last. The cities and other local governments of the USA simply aren’t going to be able to deal with cyberattacks on their own, so they’re going to be target-rich environments for state actors and the criminals they hire to detonate hand grenades to cover their tracks… or just the criminals who blow things up, you never can tell.
We can tell the cities and counties and states of the USA all we want about security and be met with the tired, nodding heads and empty eyes of IT staff that tried to tell the same message to their higher-ups. They know. They’re not idiots. They’re just faced with small budgets and political imperatives to get stuff done, no matter what. They know that when their town / county / state experiences a major breach, it will lead to the first time that entity seriously considered spending time and money on security measures. It will lead to the first time IT is allowed to do what it knows needs to be done, even if it’s done on top of the rubble and ruin of the past.
Do they have a perimeter firewall? Sure, but there was the time somebody high up got mad about traffic being blocked, so it’s set to permit all traffic by default. Do they have a datacenter firewall? Yes, indeed, right here in this box in the storeroom. It is fresh and ready to go. Do they have antivirus running on every PC? Absolutely. Well, we can only tell for sure on PCs that have antivirus running on them… we don’t know about the ones that have fallen out of communication with our software maintenance platforms.
Need I continue? Some of you are already at the point where you can bear the horror no more, but I must press on! You must see more, that you know the depths of their helplessness! Do you see the unsecured Internet line in that office, terminating on a Windows server with RDP running, no limit on logon attempts? Do you see the flat network, with telnet still running on switches and routers? Do you see massive file shares with no permissions set to halt normal users from deleting or changing files? Do you see the backup server that constantly fails its nightly backups, with the backup operator simply clicking through the errors on his shift because he was told long ago to just ignore them? Do you see the gear that all respond to the SNMP community “public”?
And there is more horror in there, I say. I didn’t even get to the Windows NT 4.0 server that’s still on the network. Why? Well, the payroll application couldn’t upgrade to run on Windows 2000, so we keep it going on that server over there… and there is yet more, deeper and deeper into hell.
Who knows what static routes lurk deep within the network, routes that bypass the firewall entirely for special IP addresses in faraway lands where US lacks extradition rights? And are there programs on unsuspected and unsuspecting systems that are just counting down the days until the dust settles, things revert to normal, and the problems of the past make themselves available for mayhem once again? Clean up all you want, but what do you do if that payroll server on NT 4.0 is infected? The only person who can rebuild that system died 3 years ago. If it’s infected, maybe we can just put it behind a firewall and only open the ports needed for Windows and Active Directory. Oh wait, that’s all of them…
So what is the solution? Is this where the federal government steps in and supplements the IT budgets of local government entities? Or would that lead only to swollen management salaries with pittances spent on actual new technical hires? Is this where the feds create a system of firewalls to filter all traffic entering and leaving the nation, such as the Chinese do?
Actually, that might be what we need. It wouldn’t do anything for completely domestic attacks, but it could do at least something to halt attacks from outside the USA, right?
Except… how do we know the difference between legitimate traffic from abroad and traffic with malicious intent? Encryption doesn’t allow one to peek into the packets very easily. Banning known bad source IP addresses just leads to attackers compromising systems with other IP addresses and then launching attacks from there.
But maybe the protection is on the outbound side, with a massive proxy server cutting communications with scam sites and other evil online in other countries. But for how long would the proxy server be protecting us only from malware and fraud? Wouldn’t law enforcement argue that we need to be protected from terrorist propaganda? How broad is that classification? Wouldn’t entertainment firms want to protect us from download sites? Would they also want to “protect” us from foreign entertainment outlets that didn’t allow them to act as middlemen brokers for their content? Would we also be “protected” from foreign news sources that didn’t go along with the administration’s views? Blocking Russian state news propaganda I wouldn’t mind, but I sure would mind if a CBC or BBC investigative journalism programme that was critical of a US firm or governmental policy was blocked.
I hate to suggest this, as it’s highly exploitative, but we could allow recent grads to learn IT and then work for pathetic, near-volunteer wages for local government entities in order to pay off their student debts. I hesitate to introduce a scheme to offer pardons for nonviolent offenders that do pro bono IT work, since fraud and cyberattacks are, themselves, nonviolent crimes…
The City of New Orleans owns Louis Armstrong International Airport. Did this recent attack penetrate into the airport? Or was the firewall that is supposed to sequester it also permitting all traffic because there’s a full trust between its AD domain and the City’s? Or for some other reason, I don’t care. It’s all a nightmare, and when I wake up, there’s some shadow moving across my screen, saying, “g00d m0rn1ng 4m3r1c4, h0w r u?”
I don’t know how to answer that question. I normally don’t want to curse the darkness without lighting a candle, but I’m at a loss for answers to all the questions I asked. Cyberattacks can produce near-nuclear results, if done on a sufficient scale and with intent to destroy, not just encrypt and demand ransom. Perhaps lasers and hypersonic missiles can defend the USA from sudden attacks launched from bombers, ICBM silos, or nuclear submarines. What good are those against cyberattacks that target our highly vulnerable small government entities?