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Feds pull the domain name plug on state of California

By Robert McMillan
October 4, 2007 12:00 PM ET

IDG News Service - SAN FRANCISCO -- The federal government pulled the plug on the Web domain name used by the state of California on Tuesday, setting into motion a chain of events that threatened to grind government business to a standstill within the state.

State IT staffers were able to fix the problem within a few hours, narrowly averting disaster, but the situation shed light on what observers are calling a shocking weakness in the state's IT infrastructure.

The story behind the shutdown, and how the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) came within hours of shutting down the California state government's Internet presence, is a complex one but, as with many stories on the Internet, it begins with pornography.

In early September the Transportation Authority of Marin, a 10-person agency charged with managing transportation funding in California's Marin County, discovered that the servers that handled the agency's Web and domain name service had been hacked and were being used to create links to pornographic Web sites.

Domain name servers are used to translate the domain names we type into our browsers into the numerical IP addresses used by computers. Together these Domain Name System (DNS) servers form a database to tell all of the computers on the Internet how to find each other. In the case of the Transportation Authority, there was one authoritative server responsible for telling all other DNS servers where to find computers operating within the tam.ca.gov domain.

The agency spent a frustrating two weeks trying to get its Internet service provider, StartLogic Inc., to resolve the problem, said Dianne Steinhauser, executive director of the Transportation Authority of Marin. Then, in mid-September, it delegated domain name server authority for the Transportation Authority's domain to the ca.gov name server, run by the state's Department of Technology Services, she said. That meant that the state's servers and not StartLogic's were now responsible for keeping the authoritative domain record for tam.ca.gov.

Unfortunately, it also meant that if an outside observer believed that the DNS server responsible for tam.ca.gov had been hacked, he might have assumed that the ca.gov name server was compromised as well. And that, apparently, is where the trouble really began for the state government.

On Tuesday, at around 2 p.m., the federal organization responsible for managing the .gov top-level domain pulled the plug on the ca.gov domain, according to Jim Hanacek, a public information officer for California's Department of Technology Services. The "ca.gov domain was removed as a valid address by the federal General Services Administration, who has an office that oversees the use of the .gov domain," he said.

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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