Perimeter Security and the Great D.C. Porn-Surfing Scandal

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2008-01-26 Print this article Print

Government workers goofing off on the public's time is not exactly news, but it illustrates why security functions need to be enforced at the gateway.

The story of the dismissal of 9 District of Columbia workers for surfing pornography on the Web from their work computers is both a social story and a technical one.

My first thought, when I see a story like this, is how stupid some people can be. But it's even worse than it looks.

"Each of the nine employees clicked on porn sites more than 19,000 times last year," according to the city's internal investigation. If you divide this up and assume a 225-day year (probably a lot for city workers, who we can also assume don't come in much on their days off), it comes out to just over 84 a day.

But 19,000 is just the floor for this group; the Gold, Silver and Bronze go to three workers with over 39,000 "clicks," for an average of 173 per day. What about the employee who only clicked 18,000 times in the year? Those between 2,000 and 19,000 will receive letters of reprimand or suspensions. Under 2,000 (not quite 9 clicks a day) and it's not clear what, if any, consequences there are.

But wait -- there's more.

The District actually had software in place (from WebSense) to monitor such behavior. It appears, from the Post story, to have been client-based software, and was only installed on 10,000 of the District's approximately 30,000 computers. Was the investigation the result of alerts from that software? Maybe, maybe not.

"The investigation was launched late last month after D.C. Chief Technology Officer Vivek Kundra received a tip from an employee in the Office of Property Management," officials said. So it sounds like no standard procedures were in place to act based on the results of this monitoring; it took a tip to the CTO to do it. And since only one-third of the computers were investigated, it's not unreasonable to assume that only one-third of the offenders were caught.

This story is, to me, a great example of the necessity and advantages of perimeter-based security. Imagine trying to manage an application on 30,000 desktops! Of course, desktop protection (these days the term has become "endpoint" protection) is necessary for many purposes, but it's a perilous approach doomed to fail if connections are not monitored at an earlier stage.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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