Stupid user tricks: Eleven IT horror stories

A long-suffering consultant and InfoWorld contributor recounts his tales of user catastrophe and lessons learned -- and shares astounding stories from readers, too

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Security silliness
Security should be everyone’s job, from CTO to administrative assistant. It’s surprising how few organizations recognize this.
I think back to a time right after a fairly large network upgrade. All weekend, day and night, had been spent migrating a nightmare network from a hodgepodge of Windows 95/98/ME and even OS/2 clients with NetWare and Windows NT servers to a clean, homogenous utopia of redundant Windows 2000 Servers on the back and Windows XP Professional desktops on the front. Things hadn’t gone quite as smoothly as we’d hoped, so instead of finishing up on Sunday afternoon, we were still putting final tweaks in place on Monday morning.
After we did our last test (making sure all local tape backups were working properly) it was about noon. (Most users by now had logged in, been informed that they needed to choose a new password in accordance with our medium-strong password guidelines, and had chosen a new password.) I stumbled bleary-eyed into the lunchroom for my umpteenth caffeine fix. Chugging my Coke, I almost missed it while mincing out of the lunchroom. But it grabbed my attention from the corner of my eye and caused Coca-Cola to shoot from my schnoz like some enraged soda dragon.
“Password List.” Yes, every user’s new password along with IT and even some specific switch passwords had been printed out by a well-meaning secretary and posted in the lunchroom. After they pried my hands from her throat, she explained that she just figured it’d be easier to post them there than to answer all the phone calls when users inevitably forgot them. So she went around and collected them (in my name), built her list, and posted it.
 User training. Passwords should not be regarded as obstacles but as keys for very important locks. Users must be made aware of such concepts, not simply dropped into new environments. If the secretary had been given a clue, she never would have done it, but the only training this company ever gave her was how to use Word.
 Preaching may be a pain, but it can sure stop a lot of FUBAR stupidity before it gets very far.

Curiosity killed the kilobyte
These situations can vary, but have the common denominator of a user experimenting with something he knows is dangerous … and not watching what he’s doing. P. A. Dunkin relates a situation that, surprisingly, I’ve encountered myself. (Mr. Dunkin declined his family’s donut fortune in favor of becoming a sys admin for a software engineering firm.)
After a recent virus outbreak, a curious engineer decided to crack open a sample of the virus to “see what made it tick.” But instead of doing this on a PC that wasn’t connected to the LAN or even one using an operating system immune to the virus, he did neither and promptly reinfected the network.
Dunkin’s user had the good sense to come forward immediately -- the guy I had experience with didn’t even realize what he’d done so we didn’t detect the new infection until anti-virus software caught it.
 For me, it was multiple areas of virus detection, both server and client. Nowadays you can even get this at the infrastructure layer and I highly recommend it. Just because a virus is killed once doesn’t mean it can’t get resurrected.
 Dunkin says his users learned from the experience -- the advantage of having geek users. For many of us, however, his subsequent strategy is applicable: “I maintain an open-door anti-virus policy: No question about viruses is stupid, ever; and any time I have to send out a warning about an especially dangerous threat, I include an offer to help set up whatever measures are required, reminding them that it takes much less time to prevent an infection than to clean up after one.”

Server abuse
You can clean your server till it sparkles, but users can still find ways to abuse them -- especially on the storage front, as reader Yan Fortin relates. Fortin was having such a boring day, he was actually browsing his firewall logs simply for something to do (I hit in that situation, but to each his own). Suddenly, he received a user call that network file access was being denied. Another call prompted him to put down his fascinating log reading and do a little investigating.
“Lo and behold, I had five e-mails warning me that the free space on the F: network share was getting dangerously low. Unfortunately for me, I had turned off the Windows Messenger Service on my workstation, so I couldn’t receive any warning that way. Shame on me.” Indeed.
Fortin searched the drive for every file bigger than 50MB and stumbled upon a marketing user who was copying approximately 30 150MB TIFF files from a DVD to the network. “I called her to inform her that I would delete all her [expletive deleted] files, and did so right after.” Crisis over.
Solution:  Fortin purchased additional hard disk space for the server right after this incident and also had a firm talk with the user about the relatively finite nature of server disk space.
Moral:  Explaining things to inexperienced or even tech-phobic users may be a pain in the posterior, but it sure can save you time, trouble, and screaming managers in the long run.

Telecommuting terrors
Always remember that even telecommuters eventually come to the office. One reader relates the experience of a remote user visiting the home office and immediately killing the entire network. A little laptop investigation showed that the user had decided to configure his laptop as a DHCP server for his home network, which “suddenly made his machine the default gateway for that segment.”
Other examples include mamas and papas who genially allow their kids to play high-end games on the corporate hardware, or (worse) to surf the Internet in all those dark and fringelike nooks that teenagers like to explore on the Web. While the adults are out having dinner, the kids are home infecting the workstation, which promptly begins to spew out viruses the next time daddy either logs in or visits the office.
 Perimeter defense. End-point security technologies such as Cisco’s NAC or Microsoft’s NAP are specifically designed to minimize this risk by scanning outside machines the moment they’re connected to the network. Failure to meet with specific criteria, including everything from minimal patch levels to scheduled virus scans, means the PC is dumped into a quarantine area of the network where it can be scanned, updated, and fixed without risk of harm to other nodes.
 Talk to your telecommuters. Fair use policies with a little bit of disciplining oomph behind them can go a long way toward having mommy buy her precious offspring their own PC to infect rather than risking her job by letting them use hers.

Ultimate weirdness
This one won our Deepest Chuckle Award. Dave Schultz related an incident in which he tagged a note to a network laser printer informing users that if print quality suffered enough to warrant a toner cartridge replacement, they should first “shake a few times to yield a few additional copies.”
Schultz was later berated because a user suffered a work-related back injury by reading the note, then picking up the entire HP LaserJet 4000 and trying to shake the printer back and forth.
Shoot the user, he’s lame now, anyway.
Never let your blood pressure get too far into the dangerous numbers and keep a bottle of Advil handy.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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