Virus knocks out Dáil

27 Feb 2003

A computer virus is understood to have knocked out the year-old state-of-the-art voting system in the Dáil.

According to Government Chief Whip and Information Society Minister Mary Hanafin TD, the one-year-old system ground to a halt during voting in Ireland’s national parliament yesterday due to a virus – believed to be the SQL Slammer worm – infecting the system. Ironically, Hanafin was addressing the inaugural meeting of the Irish chapter of the global Information Systems Security Association (ISSA).

The system consists of handset with the words ‘Tá’ or ‘Níl’ to allow TDs to vote for or against various issues. The system, Hanafin noted, has worked well over the past year, with the only errors occurring when TDs complained of hitting the wrong buttons.

When the system collapsed yesterday, onlookers were amused to see TDs resorting to voting in the traditional manner, by waddling to different sides of the Dáil chambers to vote for or against motions.

Using the new system, deputies are given 60 seconds to vote on an issue and the results are almost instantaneous. “We tested the system yesterday and we discovered a virus in the voting system,” Hanafin admitted. “Because of the kind of system it is, we weren’t able to put any anti-virus software on it and we got hit.”

In recent weeks the SQL Slammer worm infected more than 90pc of vulnerable computers within 10 minutes. Slammer’s spread of denial of service attacks (DOS) was two orders of magnitude faster than Code Red, which infected 359,000 computers in 2001. The Co-operative Association for Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA) said the Slammer worm was able to scan for vulnerable computers at 55,000 computers per second. The worm caused about US$1bn worth of damage and was responsible for shutting down most of Bank of America’s ATMs as well as hitting software giants Siebel and Microsoft and causing ticketing problems at airports.

Addressing the ISSA, Minister Hanafin stressed the importance of educating society and business about the threat of information security attacks in the form of viruses and hacker attacks. “This kind of thing harms the progress of the internet and we need to build up more confidence and trust in the internet. The pace of development is astonishing, but trust and confidence can be eroded if people don’t know how to defend against attacks. Kerry County Council is spearheading e-procurement and the Revenue On-Line Service has taken in more than US€2bn in taxes electronically in the past two years. But these advances can be hurt if we don’t have the legal and regulatory framework right. Security is central to this,” Hanafin said.

She related how she herself fell victim to credit card fraud on a recent holiday in South Africa. “I bought an item but for some reason it was entered in three times and I had a bill of €600 and rising,” she said.

“Your job is to see how you can restore trust and confidence in electronic systems and the internet,” Hanafin told the ISSC audience, made up largely of IT security managers and e-security vendors.

Hanafin added that work is in progress to establish an electronic cabinet, or e-cabinet, in Government whereby electronic voting and information exchange will take place at cabinet level. “Each year the cabinet views over 2.1 million A4 pages a year. Each minister carries 4.75 kilos of paper into each meeting. The plan is to move all of this onto an online system and that should be completed within the year to increase efficiency and drive down costs at cabinet level.”

By John Kennedy