Agencies' preparation pays off, blocks Zotob worm

'This could be, and I cross my fingers, an indication that we are moving in the right direction.'

' OMB's Karen Evans

This time, federal systems were ready.

Zotob, the latest worm exploiting a vulnerability in a Microsoft operating system'Windows 2000'would not repeat the damage caused by Code Red, Melissa and Welchia over the last four years to agency systems.

The State Department's intranet did not shut down for nine hours as it did for Welchia in 2003. The Defense Department did not have to block public access to its Internet site as it did to stop Code Red from infecting its systems in 2001.

Zotob was rendered practically harmless last month to agencies, even though CNN, ABC News and other large commercial Web sites were brought down. Agencies reported fewer than 200 incidents among the hundreds of thousands of systems that run Windows 2000, said Alan Paller, director of the SANS Institute of Bethesda, Md.

An ounce of prevention

Most agency CIOs said they saw little'if any'impact on their networks, because chief information security officers had tested and implemented the patch from Microsoft in less than three days.

'From our perspective, the government performed well,' said Karen Evans, the Office of Management and Budget's administrator for E-Government and IT. 'This could be, and I cross my fingers, an indication that we are moving in the right direction to ensure that part of the security process is to test and install patches quickly and effectively.'

Microsoft sends patches out the second Tuesday of each month'it's known as Patch Tuesday'and gives customers a heads-up the Thursday before on which products will be patched and the severity of the vulnerabilities, said Mike Reavey, operations manager at Microsoft's security response center.

'Zotob was critical, and we recommended updating systems as soon as possible,' Reavey said. 'I think our customers understand our updating cycle better, and we've increased our deployment guidance and provided tools to help them install and test the patch more easily.'

While Microsoft has made the process easier, Evans and agency CIOs also attribute their success to overall improvements in security processes.

'The government's response speaks highly of the effect of the Federal Information Security Management Act and the chief information security officers,' said Transportation Department CIO Dan Matthews. 'FISMA has been an integral part of raising awareness. Zotob made its way around the government as quickly as any other, but the entire cybersecurity community was ready.'

Lisa Schlosser, Housing and Urban Development Department CIO, said her office tested and installed the patch from Microsoft in less than three days. After testing the patch, Schlosser's office pushed it out to all of HUD's systems.

The ability to push the fix out to all systems is one reason agencies defeated Zotob, Paller said. He also attributed their success to improved configuration management.

But he agreed that FISMA and the attention the administration has paid IT security over the past five years also likely played a role in how agencies are prepared for worms and viruses.

'If the reports are true, that less than 200 systems were infected, that is an enormous accomplishment for an organization as large as the federal government,' Paller said. 'The number of machines that were infected by Code Red and other worms was much larger'in the thousands.'

Evans said a lot of agency success also came from the focus of the President's Management Agenda and oversight from the Hill.

'We don't have a lot of wins in this area, but this is one of them,' Evans said.

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