On the front lines of IT

Technologists are key to protecting corporate assets and information exchange during wartime

If your office is like mine, the overall difficulty of doing business during the rough economy of the past two years is now compounded by something new: the war in Iraq. Regardless of how you feel morally or politically about the war, it is clear that IT must continue its usual mission, although the context has changed in subtle ways. Running IT during a war is not necessarily business as usual.

I knew things were different when the FedEx drop box in the basement of our office building had a hastily-scrawled note on it just after the war began: “Early pick-up due to protests. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

Everyone in IT, from the CTO down, needs to approach their daily work a little differently in times of geopolitical conflict. Released last year by the President’s Critical Infrastructure Board, the “National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace” noted: "Cyberspace is essential to both homeland security and national security; its security and reliability support the economy, critical infrastructures, and national defense.” As a technologist, you’re not just watching this conflict unfold on CNN -- you could be on the IT front lines at any moment.

To some degree, all wars are wars of information, and this one is the first large-scale conflict waged both on the battlefield and the Internet.

While troops battle on the ground in cities whose names we are just learning, Arab news sites such as Al-Jazeera battle DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks from Internet “hactivists." Whether you think this is laudable or reprehensible, it certainly illustrates that this is a different kind of conflict, increasingly driven  by technology on the battlefield, in our newsrooms, and in the datacenter.

In a ground war, opposing troops can generally be seen and tracked, but with little warning, aggression against technology resources can be quickly distributed around the Internet and made essentially untrackable. In a world of increasingly decentralized systems driven by Web services, there are no “fronts” in IT, only nodes on the network. Guarding these nodes is tough under normal circumstances but requires particular vigilance in times of world conflict.

Moments of uncertainty provide a good opportunity to refocus on the things you do know -- the blocking and tackling of IT. But ensuring a secure environment doesn’t mean initiating massive security audits or obsessively picking through logs as a first line of defense. First, make sure that your key systems are patched properly and that you are on top of security advisories from Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) and Bugtraq. Covering all of your known security bases will serve you well if an unpredictable problem arises.

You might notice that activity on your office LAN has changed. I haven’t seen any hard information for new trends on the office LAN during wartime, but with CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC offering more streaming media to the desktop, chances are that your co-workers are picking up streaming video and audio from these sources. Obviously, the simplest firewall can block this sort of activity, but you should consider that as long as it’s not causing network performance issues and people are getting their work done, you are providing a source of support in troubled times by making sure information flows freely.

I think rank-and-file technologists sometimes forget the key role they play in protecting not only the security of corporate systems, but the availability of information as well. You should be proud of the role you play, and the employees of your company should be thankful.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.