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Alastair Revell is the Managing Consultant of Revell Research Systems, a Management and Technology Consulting Practice based at Exeter in the United Kingdom.
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The material published in this web log is for general purposes only. It does not constitute nor is it intended to represent professional advice. You should always seek specific professional advice in relation to particular issues. The information in this web log is provided "as is" with no warranties and confers no rights. The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions.

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Review Entries for Day Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Just a quick update to my earlier blog regarding the problems currently being faced by the University of Exeter. It seems the virus is exploiting known flaws in the Microsoft Vista and Microsoft Server 2008 platforms.

Zack Whittacker, who blogs for ZDNet, has a source inside the university here in Exeter. Apparently, the virus is mainly targeting Vista SP2 machines and the IT staff at the university are trying to use patch MS09-050 to reduce the attack surface.

It is understood that this virus has not been seen outside of the Exeter campus, but clearly demonstrates the disruption that a carefully crafted attack can cause.

There is a suggestion in Whittacker's blog that some critical patches had not been applied (using the Microsoft System Update Service).

We strongly believe that machines should regularly be checked to ensure that patches that should have been applied, actually have been applied. If the loop is not closed in this manner then these sorts of problems are eventually inevitable.

We are concerned that many SMEs, who often do not patch properly, may be at considerable risk if this virus escapes the Exeter campus.

In addition, I remain concerned about the zero-day virus threat. A virus that spreads quickly and easily such as this one, that exploits a flaw such as the one in Internet Explorer that saw Google hacked in China, with a drive-by infection capability on a site such as any of the international versions of Google would lead to huge economic disruption across the globe.

For starters, many people set Google as their home page, so in this apocalyptic scenario, they would be infected and spreading such a virus internally inside the organisational firewall without detection or defence the moment they went online...

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010 9:11:14 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #
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It seems that the University of Exeter is currently in the middle of a major virus outbreak, which has led to their IT team shutting down the entire campus network, including their telephone system in an attempt to contain the problem.

The attack appears to have started on Monday. The campus network was shutdown at around 2:00pm as a direct response to the threat. However, the problems seem to be continuing today (Wednesday).

The university’s home page suggests that staff and students are only able to access email externally using home computers and the like.

The communications advice issued by the university says that it “is currently experiencing a severe IT incident, and as a precautionary measure we’ve taken much of our network offline. Parts of the University are being brought back online today as soon as it is safe to do so. The University switchboard is online and can accept calls, but we are unable to transfer them to some affected areas of the University.”

Sources in Exeter suggest that the virus has not been identified, but it is thought that the university was deliberately targeted. Stuart Franklin, a spokesman for the university, speaking to the local evening paper, the Express & Echo, said: “We were attacked by a virus. It was a malicious attack. It is the first time I have known such an attack to succeed.”

It seems clear that this virus is extremely virulent and has managed to spread quickly and easily. This strongly suggests that it managed to circumvent the university’s antivirus systems and may have been akin to a zero-day virus.

Although a difficult decision, I believe that closing down the infrastructure in such circumstances is the right thing to do.

This incident should provide food for thought for many organisations. The cost of closing down a network is extremely expensive in terms of lost revenue and opportunities, even before the sheer amount of professional time spent checking systems and returning them to service is taken into consideration.

In fact, this sort of attack can cause immense damage to an organisation and is relatively easy to perpetrate, which has not escaped the notice of Lloyd’s of London Emerging Risks Team in their October 2009 report: ‘Digital Risks: Views of a Changing Risk Landscape’. The report states that “The value of data can vary enormously, but for some organisations it could mean bankruptcy.”

The interesting aspect to this attack is that the university believes it was “hit by the virus deliberately”.

I think we may see an increase in this sort of attack in the future. The recession has been very deep and many people with criminal intent and technical capability across the world may turn to cyber-crime.

In the first two weeks of January, we’ve seen the national governments of France and Germany warn their citizens about security flaws in Internet Explorer after an attack on Google’s site in China (along with some 20 other organisations), which Microsoft admitted late last week were part of the attack mechanism. The code that exploits these particular flaws were published on Monday, 18th January 2010 and there are already some reports of it being used maliciously.

Although the problems at the University of Exeter and the issues with Internet Explorer are probably not connected, the trend for increased, malicious attacks is clear. 

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010 5:02:17 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #
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Review Entries for Day Wednesday, December 02, 2009

I’ve been mulling over Michael Cross’ article of 23rd September 2009 for the Guardian web site for a while now, which was written in response to The British Computer Society rebranding itself as BCS The Chartered Institute for IT and announcing that it was revising its process for Chartered IT Professional (CITP) registration.

The article sported the contentious title: “IT can have its professionals, if they don’t get stroppy” with a subtitle of “Government and employers will not recognise IT ‘professionals’ if they are demanding as doctors and lawyers.” 

Mr Cross’ article highlights the tight rope that the Chartered Institute for IT walks as it tries to raise the level of professionalism in IT. The government is currently very supportive of the Institute’s moves to raise the bar in the IT profession, but Mr Cross rightly points out that “the trend could swiftly go into reverse if a new government finds IT professionals to be as stroppy and independent-minded as they find doctors and lawyers today.”
He continues: “Governments like taking expert advice – but only if it’s ‘Yes, minister’”, which certainly seems to be true with the recent resignations from various expert advisory panels because they apparently didn’t say what the current government wanted to hear.
The problem, of course, is that so called “stroppiness” is an important aspect of professionalism. A professional has a duty to their client to advise them when their actions are contrary to their professional advice and to point out the probable consequences.
It is precisely this lack of professional ethics that causes much of the damage to the public purse and, no doubt, many private purses too. As Cross chides in his article, “the IT industry isn’t shy about talking up its abilities” and he rams the point home with the anecdote that he has a corporate t-shirt that boasts a company slogan of “Mission impossible achieved”.
A major problem with the IT industry is that it is too heavily driven by sales hype that plays on the naivety of easily persuaded customers. Professionalism, on the other hand, is about telling the truth, whether the client likes the message, or not.
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Wednesday, December 02, 2009 5:46:49 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #
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Review Entries for Day Saturday, October 31, 2009
Farmers Weekly has reported that the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) has lost the payment details of every farmer in the United Kingdom that has ever claimed a farm payment. The details include names and addresses, bank details, passwords and security questions and apparently were not encrypted. The number of farmers affected is believed to be around 100,000.
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Saturday, October 31, 2009 3:01:56 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #
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Review Entries for Day Monday, September 21, 2009
The British Computer Society (BCS) launched its new branding over the weekend and it is clearly setting an ambitious course. The changes clearly run far deeper than just the corporate colour change from blue to green. Firstly, it is obvious from the web site that it wants to fulfil a more global role rather than just one confined to the United Kingdom. It has conspicuously stopped calling itself The British Computer Society in favour of referring to itself simply as the BCS.
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Monday, September 21, 2009 8:29:48 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #
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Review Entries for Day Thursday, September 03, 2009

I was pleased to just read a few moments ago on the BBC Web Site that the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park is to acquire the Harwell machine. It is the oldest computer in existence (depending on whether you classify the Collusus machine as a computer or not) and will definitely strengthen their growing collection.

I understand that the machine is to be dusted down and restarted as part of a renovation project. The machine was originally built and used by staff at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell in Oxfordshire. It was designed in 1949, commissioned in 1951 and ran in regular service until 1973.

I think it is important that the IT profession looks after its heritage. We like to boast that a year in computing or Internet time is equivalent to just a few months. We need to realise that, if this is the case, that we are producing history at around four times the normal rate!

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Thursday, September 03, 2009 5:43:56 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #
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Review Entries for Day Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I welcome the joint report produced by fellows of The Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) and The British Computer Society (BCS) entitled: "Engineering Values in IT", which was published on 3rd August 2009 and is available from the academy's web site.

The report recommends that "appropriately qualified Chartered Engineers (CE) and Chartered IT Professionals (CITP) should be employed to lead and manage major IT projects within both government and industry."

I sense that, in particular, Chartered IT Professional (CITP) status is a qualification whose time is now rapidly approaching. I’ve noted over recent months that many IT professionals in senior positions have recently been awarded chartered status.

It is a necessarily hard qualification to achieve and is certainly on a par with those in other chartered professions, such as Chartered Accountants or Chartered Surveyors.

The motivation for the report was the critical importance of IT at a national level.

The report notes that the take up of chartered status within information technology remains a problem. I certainly think that those who have attained the CITP qualification should make it clear that they are "Chartered IT Professionals", since I believe that this will accelerate its adoption.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009 9:29:16 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #
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Review Entries for Day Thursday, May 28, 2009

I’ve recently had occasion to contact a number of professional service firms “out of the blue” about the services that they offer.

As an IT professional, I’ve naturally used email as my preferred means of communication. What concerns me is that in all cases, I’ve had to chase these emails because I’ve had no reply – no doubt because my original email has been eaten by my recipient’s anti-spam system.
This raises serious questions about the effectiveness of email for “first contact” communication and begs the question just how many leads are being lost by organisations in this recession!
Clearly, telephone contact or a written letter is probably both more efficient and more effective. In fact, as traditional (ie: paper-based) junk mail seems to be in decline, any written communication is more likely to stand out when marketing services to other firms, rather than being automatically hidden as frequently now happens with emarketing.
Where does this leave email?
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Thursday, May 28, 2009 10:26:13 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #
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Review Entries for Day Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I attended the BCS South West AGM Talk “The Second World War Code Breaking Centre at Bletchley Park” at the University of Plymouth on Wednesday, 13th May 2009, given by John Gallehawk of The Bletchley Park Trust, who came complete with an Enigma machine – the code machine used by the German’s during the war to send encrypted messages between various fighting units and their commanders.

It was the first time that I had heard anyone from Bletchley Park talk and the speaker was very engaging. The history of the house, its role during the war and its more recent history were all fascinating.

The Enigma machine was clearly the star attraction of the talk and sparked a lot of discussion amongst the various IT professionals drawn from across the region and from a variety of computing disciplines.

 john gallehawk with an enigma machine 

John Gallehawk, from The Blethcley Park Trust,
demonstrating the use of an Enigma Machine.

The talk accidentally followed Stephen Fry’s visit to Bletchley in the same week, which had managed to draw a lot of attention to the plight of the centre. News of his informal visit seems to have escaped because he uses Twitter to keep his fans informed of his movements. He’d announced that he was as “excited as a kitten” about his visit.

I certainly believe that Bletchley Park needs as much publicity and money as it can get. It is very much the cradle of British computing and is arguably the birth place of the first modern computer, the so-called Collossus. It would be a terrible disgrace if our generation of IT professionals allowed this important piece of our history to decay and disappear, which it most certainly is in danger of doing.

I blogged last September about Dr Sue Black of the University of Westminster’s letter to The Times, which she had been spurred to write after the feedback she received from other heads of computing departments across the British higher education establishment. She’s right - the centre really does need saving.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009 3:14:46 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #
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