The Department of Homeland Security self-inflicted what one observer called a mini distributed denial of service, with a reported mass of more than 2.2 million messages stuffing the inboxes of the nations security experts.
All this is simply due to the fact that the agency allowed a newsletters recipients to reply to all subscribers.
Marcus H. Sachs, director of the SANS Internet Storm Center, said in a posting that the problem started Oct. 3 when a reader of the DHS daily Open Source Intelligence Report replied to the list address with a request for a change. The readers message wound up getting sent to all list subscribers—a number that could be in the thousands, Sachs said.
In the hour that followed, dozens of readers replied to the exposed list of recipients, causing the “mini-DDoS” with demands to unsubscribe, pleas to others to cease replying, urgent requests from the Department of Defense and DHS officials for recipients to “kindly stop now please,” a “vote for me” political ad, job offers and updates on the local weather.
“Its good here in D.C.,” the New York Times quotes Bill Miller from the Office of Emergency Programs in the Treasury Department as having written. “Just a bit muggy!”
The incident, Sachs noted, revealed, “a nice cross-section of who subscribes to DHS daily publications and consider themselves part of the defensive security community. Most definitely do not have the Jack Bauer [character from the television series 24] mentality of total seriousness and no joking attitude,” he said.
SANS investigated and found that the newsletters recipient list doesnt appear to be a typical listserve from GNU Mailman—a GNU package for managing e-mail lists—or MajorDomo, a proprietary mailing list manager developed by Brent Chapman of Great Circle Associates that works in conjunction with sendmail on Unix and related operating systems.
Rather, it appears that the newsletter uses an e-mail address on a Lotus Domino Release 7.0.2FP1 server that Sachs said is hosted by a government contractor. The listserve reflects e-mail to a list of thousands of subscribers, he said, although its not clear why it hasnt done so until now, given that the service has been available for months.
Click here to read about missing White House e-mails.
It could well boil down to human error, he suggested. “Quite likely an e-mail administrator either clicked a box last night, rebuilt the system, migrated it to a new server or did something that unset a setting designed to prevent this type of event.”
As of late in the evening of Oct. 3, the pain continued. “In the past few minutes the CSC server has started spewing attachment blocking notifications in response to the e-mails sent in that had MIME formatted content,” Sachs said in an update to his original posting. “So now we brace for another round of spew.”
Almost 300 names and e-mail addresses of security experts, both in the government and in the private sector, were exposed in the incident. One SANS Storm Center reader suggested it wouldnt be surprising if a “wiseacre” now sent a zero-day PDF or Word attachment to that list to “nail a few dozen gullible security professionals,” Sachs said.
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