Lincolnshire poachers

Dark times in the Fens, as Lincolnshire County Council finds itself in the grip of diabolical cyber-blackmailers who demand £1,000,000 to release the local authority from the grip of a terrifying new strain of virus that has locked up all their files. As ever, it’s unwise to judge the outcome before all of the details are in, but Lincolnshire’s story has some interesting aspects. One element seems to go in Lincoln’s favour: this is “zero-day malware“, the first time that the particular infection has been detected. This obviously would make it harder to defend against, and in any case the Council is “confident it had appropriate security measures in place“.

The Council’s chief information officer Judith Hetherington-Smith reassured residents with the claim that they were “absolutely looking after their data and it hasn’t been compromised”. This implies that no personal data has been compromised, but this can’t be entirely squared with some of Hetherington-Smith’s other comments. For example “Once we identified it we shut the network down, but some damage is always done before you get to that point – and some files have been locked by the software” Right, so there’s some damage then? “A lot of the files will be available for us to restore from the back-up.” A lot of them but not all of them? What about the ones that aren’t available?

That back-up is interesting, in the light of the fact that “People can only use pens and paper, we’ve gone back a few years.” An inherent part of information security is business continuity, ensuring that even if something falls over, the place can keep running. I’m running a course this week for people responsible for risk-managing big information systems, and the client has specifically asked me to emphasise the need for business continuity to be built in. The whole point of this is not to be knocked back to the pen and paper age – I heard a report on Radio 4 that Lincolnshire’s social workers had not had access to systems for several days, which means those charged with protecting the most vulnerable in Lincolnshire don’t have access to information they need to do their job. If this information isn’t “compromised“, then I don’t know how else you would define it. It’s a catastrophe. Rather than attempting to reassure (I’m amazed that no-one has said that they take Data Protection very seriously), the council needs to explain why they are offline for days without a back-up that allows essential systems to keep running.

But the most interesting part of the story, and the element that is most crucial for deciding whether Lincolnshire has breached the Data Protection Act is how the infection got into their systems in the first place. Forget the eye-catching ransom demand, the terrifying challenge of the previously unseen virus, forget even the question of why the Council has no alternative option when attacked than blindness and pens & paper. How did it happen, you cry? How did these cunning cyber-ninjas drip their deadly poison despite all of Lincolnshire’s “appropriate security measures“?

Somebody opened an email. 

I don’t know how good Lincolnshire’s technical security is: however sceptical I might be,  there may be good reasons why they could not mirror their systems or back them up in such a way that they could not be restored more quickly. Nevertheless, everything that the Council has said or done since the incident, even if their claim that no data has been compromised is true (I don’t believe them, but OK), is irrelevant. The fundamental question is why their staff are capable of falling victim to the dumbest, most basic security attack known to humankind. I just hope they don’t get any emails about the frozen bank accounts of the late Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda. The Lincolnshire incident was entirely, wholly preventable, and they have to explain both to the Information Commissioner and to the fine folk of Lincolnshire why they allowed this to happen.

I have said it a thousand times, and here I am saying it again. An incident is not a breach. In order to have complied, Lincolnshire’s “appropriate security measures” have to include regular training and reminders, specifically warning about threats like malware in emails. Managers have to regularly check how their staff are working and whether they are following the clear, widely disseminated procedures and policies that would be necessary in order to comply. Audits would have to be in place, and the individual systems that Lincolnshire has had to switch off should have been assigned to named asset owners, who are responsible for actively assessing risks entirely like this one, and putting measures in place to keep them running even in the face of attacks.

If the person who opened the email has not been trained, reminded and appropriately supervised, this whole incident is Lincolnshire County Council’s fault and they should be taken to task for it. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated the software was, how unexpected Lincolnshire might be as a target: THEY LET THE BURGLARS IN. All the warm words about what happened after that, even if they’re all true, make no difference to this basic fact. You may say that an organisation can’t prevent human error, but that’s nonsense. Training, reminders, appropriate supervision and picking the right people in the first place massively reduce human error. Everything that happens afterwards is damage limitation: either Lincolnshire did what was required beforehand, or it’s a breach.

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