I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how KL’s airport information system had been infected by a virus. I shouldn’t have gotten so het up. Turns out that the UK’s air force and navy have bigger problems.
ITV News reported on Friday that the Ministry of Defence’s computer network has been shut down “because of a mysterious virus that is causing wholesale disruption of MoD sites.” Among those affected were Royal Navy ships including the Ark Royal and RAF [Royal Air Force] bases including Brize Norton.
The Register quotes a statement from the “MoD that [s]ince 6 Jan 09 the performance of the MOD IT systems in a number of areas was affected by a virus.” The Register says “no command or operational systems had been affected, though many of these are based on similar hardware. Spokespersons also stated that “no classified or personal data has been or will be at risk of compromise” due to “pre-existing security measures”.”
This is less than a month after the Royal Navy announced it had switched its nuclear submarines to a “customized Microsoft Windows system” dubbed, snappily, Submarine Command System Next Generation (SMCS NG).
In 1998 the USS Yorktown was “dead in the water” for about two and a half hours after a glitch in its new Smart Ship system, which used off-the-shelf PCs to automate tasks sailors traditionally did manually. The mishap sunk the Smart Ship initiative, which was quietly dropped a couple of years later.
A report in Portsmouth Today said the virus had affected 75% of the navy’s ships, preventing sailors from sending email and performing tasks (like finding out how many sailors are joining the ship at its next port of call). A blog on the Ministry of Defence’s website denied a report in The Sunday Times that ‘all email traffic from a number of RAF stations has been sent to a Russian internet server’ as a result of a ‘worm virus that entered MOD systems 12 days ago’. (The report makes it appear like it was a Russian attack, which is unlikely. But I’m not sure how the MoD can be so sure that emails were not diverted in that way.)
Neither do I know how they can be sure that it wasn’t a targeted attack. As Graham Cluley of Sophos points out, it’s more likely it was human error. But aside from the issues that raises—just how many MoD computers are hooked up to the Internet, and how smart is this? What kind of antivirus software do they have installed on the computers that are?—I would prefer the MoD not to jump to the conclusion that it’s not a targeted attack.
The reason? We need to stop thinking about cyberwar and malware as two different things. Governments rarely launch cyberattacks. But individuals and gangs do—and they usually do it for a mix of nationalistic and commercial motives. This case probably is just a screw-up. But it’s foolish to discount the notion that the information that may have been gleaned—accidentally, perhaps—would prove of value to a government or an agency.
(Image above is the result of my trying to search the Royal Navy website for the word “virus”. )