The Federal government pulled the plug on the ca.gov Web domain 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 State of California's Internet presence is a complex one, but as with so 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 Marin County, California, 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 www.website.com domain names we type into our browsers into numerical IP addresses, used by computers. Together these Domain Name System (DNS) servers form a web-like database telling 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, 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 of California.
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 with 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.
Only the GSA knows for sure why this was done, but Hanacek said that the problems that had been experienced by the Transportation Authority of Marin were behind the move. "Our understanding... is they were seeing signs of some redirects over to pornographic sites and that is what caused them to shut down that domain."
A GSA spokeswoman did not dispute California's account of what happened, but said that her agency was looking into Tuesday's events and "will be able to provide an update once the details are gathered."