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DHS e-mail snafu reveals info on thousands of security pros

'Is this being a joke?' asks researcher with Iran's Ministry of Defense

October 4, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A Reply All to a daily news roundup that had been e-mailed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to some 7,500 people, including thousands of security professionals, flooded government and business mail servers with over 2 million messages Wednesday.

The gaffe also revealed all subscribers' e-mail addresses, and in some cases other personal information, to other recipients of the DHS bulletin. Some of that information, including telephone numbers and titles of military personnel and government workers, may have been classified.

According to the New York Times, the unintended spam run began when a recipient of the "DHS Daily Open Source Infrastructure Report" hit the Reply All button to transmit an e-mail address change request.

By the end of the day, more than 2 million messages had been generated as recipients also using Reply or Reply All first complained about the spam surge, then added to the flood by mailing offhand comments, humorous remarks or demands that people stop sending messages. (See Computerworld blog post and related comments.)

The mail bouncing back and forth painted a less-than-professional picture, said Marcus Sachs, the director of the SANS Institute's Internet Storm Center (ISC). "It revealed a nice cross-section of who subscribes to DHS daily publications and consider themselves part of the defensive security community," Sachs said in a post to the ISC blog early Thursday. "Most definitely do not have the Jack Bauer (character from the series 24) mentality of total seriousness and no-joking attitude."

One list subscriber captured the non-Bauer attitude in a message that went out to all 7,500: "This has gone from an amazing pain in the neck, to fifth grade. But that was my favorite grade."

Another from the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense was even more flippant. "As a representative of the Department of Defense, I am ordering all to cease and desist with the emails. I'm a Sagittarius and it's overcast here in D.C.! :-)"

Sachs said that some ISC snooping found the DHS was not using a mail list manager, or e-mai list, such as the open-source Mailman or the free Majordomo, but instead was transmitting the daily report from an e-mail address on a Lotus Domino Release 7.0.2FP1 server hosted by a government contractor. "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 un-set a setting designed to prevent this type of event," Sachs suggested.

On Thursday, a DHS spokeswoman confirmed the snafu, which was only untangled when the government contractor that maintains the list, Computer Science Corp. (CSC) of El Segundo, Calif., was ordered to shut it down. According to several subscribers, the spam stopped late Wednesday, approximately nine hours after it started. The spokeswoman, who said that the bulletin originates from the DHS' National Infrastructure Coordinating Center, declined to explain the cause of the problem, but her description of changes made to prevent future occurrences gave a good hint.

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