Computer Virus Brings Back Old Times to County Offices

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 9, 2007

Typewriters were dusted off, hand-held radios were tested, and Anne Arundel County employees reported having to walk between offices rather than sending e-mails yesterday after a virus led to the shutdown of more than 2,500 computers.

The fast-spreading virus infected as many as 200 county computers Wednesday, and technicians shut down the entire network for Anne Arundel offices for more than 24 hours.

The disruption left hundreds of employees without access to databases, the Internet and printers, but 911 emergency services and financial transactions such as bill payments were not affected, officials said.

By the end of the day, parts of the network were up and running. But during the two days of network shutdown, some county employees said they were forced to resort to tools and methods abandoned long ago in the name of technological progress.

Everyone in the state's attorney's office was suddenly cut off from the county's computerized case file system, which case managers use to input information related to ongoing trials.

"It was like we were suddenly on 'Little House on the Prairie,' " said spokeswoman Kristin Riggin. "We had, I think, one typewriter in the entire office. One of the law clerks actually started to write a motion out by hand. Technology, we found out, can actually bring the wheels of justice to a little bit of a halt."

Police -- bereft of the mobile data computers in their cruisers -- started radioing dispatchers to run license plate numbers and check criminal backgrounds.

County technicians said the problem may have originated within the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which had experienced similar problems earlier.

The county's office of information technology began fielding calls from employees about 10:40 a.m. Wednesday. The virus, called Rinbot, spread quickly. County officials decided to shut down the entire network rather than allowing the virus to spread.

County contractor Symantec, a virus protection company, was called to examine the problem and provide a cure.

According to Symantec's Web site, the Rinbot virus exploits vulnerabilities in the network, including components protected by weak passwords. Once it infects a computer, it opens a back door in the computer, which can cause further problems, and scans the network for other computers it can infect.

The county's IT department received a fix from Symantec yesterday morning and began working to restore computers across the system. By yesterday afternoon, some workers in the health department were finding the silver lining in the whole ordeal.

"Fitness-wise, it was a lot healthier, because we were walking down the hall and up the stairs to talk to co-workers instead of e-mailing," said health department spokeswoman Elin Jones. "And these days everyone's always talking about emergency preparedness. Well, we even got to practice using our hand-held frequency radios to talk to the people in the building next door. It was good experience overall."

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