Monday, February 9, 2009

Computer Virus Shuts Down Houston Municipal Courts

Via (Houston) -

Houston shut down part of its municipal court operations Friday, cancelling hearings and suspending arrests for minor offenses after a computer virus infected hundreds of its machines. City officials said they expected the problems to extend at least through Monday.

Court offices will remain open to allow people to pay tickets and fines, but the dockets will have to be reset, a move that will affect thousands of cases, city officials said.

It was unclear Friday how the virus got into the system, but officials promised a thorough investigation. They could not say when they hoped to have the virus removed from the city network.

The disruption cascaded through city departments, leading police to temporarily abandon making some arrests for minor offenses. Officials also briefly disconnected the Houston Emergency Center. Although some emergency communications, such as dispatching, are routed through the center, police experienced no major disruptions, officials said.

By Friday afternoon, officials said the virus appeared to be contained to 475 of the city’s more than 16,000 computers. But the problems it caused grew so severe that city officials made an emergency purchase order for up to $25,000 to bring in Gray Hat Research, a technology security company that began trying to eradicate it through the early morning hours Friday.

“We’re working as hard as we can on it,” said Richard Lewis, the city’s information technology director. “This is a complex matter. We’re not sure what virus has attacked us. It’s going to probably be days.”

The compromise of the city networks dealt another blow to the municipal court computer system, which has been beset by problems almost as soon as it went live in April 2006.

The $10 million effort by Maximus Inc. to bring the court’s activities online was immediately troublesome to judges, clerks and prosecutors and delayed court proceedings in 2006. After threatening litigation, the city reached a $5 million settlement with Maximus and may seek another vendor.

Janis Benton, the city’s deputy director of information technology, said officials suspected the infection was a form of Conficker, the latest super virus that has breached at least 10 million computers worldwide as of late January, including the government health department in New Zealand and defense systems in France.

Conficker, also known as Downadup, infects computers via a flaw in the Microsoft Windows operating system. Microsoft issued an emergency patch back in October, and PCs that have the patch are protected from the worm.

Once on a computer, Conficker disables some of its capabilities, connects to outside servers and can download other malicious programs. It may also gather personal information and upload it to remote servers.

Because individuals and larger operations are often slow to patch their systems, Conficker has spread quickly.

Lewis said the patch almost certainly would have been installed because of protocols in place, but said he is not sure the problem is Conficker.

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