Target, get on the ball with this data breach


If you shopped at Target between 11/27/2013 and 12/15/2013, congratulations.  Your credit or debit card info is one of around 40 million up for sale in a thriving underground marketplace complete with wholesalers, distributors, retailers, and easy to use websites.  Replace your card right now before bad things happen.

Brian Krebs broke the story in his blog, Krebs on Security, and the public owes Krebs a debt of gratitude.   Here is the original story.   Here is a follow-up post.  Target blew it.  Target should have notified customers and broken the story itself.  But  instead of proactively notifying its customers, Target apparently responded to the Krebs blog, as did the rest of the popular press.

The more onion layers peeled back, the scarier this gets.  Where did that date range between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15 come from?  Apparently, banks buy samples of stolen credit card info from those same underground markets and look for patterns.  The big thing all these cards have in common is – you guessed it – transactions at Target during that time window.   That’s why the press is reporting the date range of 11/27 through 12/15/2013, not because of anything Target found and reported about its systems.

Let this sink in for a minute.   That date range came from looking at samples of cards already stolen and not from any analysis of whatever was penetrated to get the card numbers.  As of Christmas eve, 2013, we still don’t know what specifically was penetrated, which means we don’t know what else is at risk or what steps the public can take to protect itself.  Here is an article with some expert speculation, but it’s only speculation from the outside.

Target claims the vulnerability is now closed and offers reassuring press releases to soothe the general public.  But with no guidance on what was penetrated and what specific steps Target took to close the vulnerability, the press releases so far offer nothing of value.  The public trusted Target before the theft and now 40 million credit card numbers are up for grabs.  Why should the public trust Target now?  What’s different?

If anyone from Target reads this blog post, Crisis Management 101 suggests transparency and disclosure.  The worst thing you can do is hide.  Instead of reacting to events and putting out vague press releases that offer no useful information, get in front of this story and tell the public specifically what happened and what you’re doing about it.  Introduce us to the people working around the clock to plug the gaps.  Show us how hard you’re working to fix the problem.  Convince us that shopping at your stores won’t expose us to identity theft.  Treat this like a crisis, because it really is a crisis.

Are we all in this together, as your press releases promise, or are those just empty PR words?  Smart people who know how transaction systems are supposed to work are watching.

A long couple of days in the life of an IT consultant


This story is one example of many for what the best IT professionals do to keep our skills current.

The story started in April, 2013 when an opportunity to deliver a project based on a software product called RHN Satellite from a company named Red Hat came along. Large companies use RHN Satellite for activities such as automated builds, patch management, auditing, configuration management, and other administration for Red Hat Enterprise Linux servers. Think of an IT shop that needs to roll out dozens or even hundreds of servers and set them all up the same way. Those folks need RHN Satellite.

I knew nothing about RHN Satellite, but I’ve earned a reputation as a quick learner and was confident I could master it.  This would help a customer bring in an important project and make some money for me.  A win for everyone.  So I said yes.  This is what the best IT consultants do; we say yes and we learn quickly.  The job is not for the feint of heart.

There was a training class in Dallas with open seats coming in one week and I quickly signed up. Dallas is more than 900 miles away and I’m too cheap to buy expensive plane tickets, so I drove the 14 hours to the training site, attended the class and learned enough about advanced Red Hat Enterprise Linux system administration to deliver the project.  I also invested in the certification test.  If I’m going to learn the product, I may as well also get some certification credit for it.

Red Hat certifications are unique in the IT industry. While most IT product vendors offer certification tests based on cleverly worded multiple choice questions, Red Hat tests are all lab based.   This means anyone who wants a Red Hat certification must demonstrate knowledge of that system by setting one up in a lab according to test specifications.  The tests are challenging and very few candidates pass on their first attempts, even instructors who teach the courses.

Equipment problems in the Dallas classroom forced Red Hat to reschedule my certification test.  I scheduled mine for July in Chicago and failed miserably.  I improved in Chicago in October, but not enough to pass.

I knew what I did wrong and how to fix it, but the next scheduled test in Chicago was 6 long months away.   Two other test sites had openings on Nov. 22.  One was in Atlanta, the other in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  The Atlanta site is 16+ hours away by car, the Ottawa site around 18 hours away.

I decided on the Atlanta site and planned to buy my seat sometime after Nov. 9 to maximize my credit card float.  But the Atlanta seats filled on Nov. 8, leaving Ottawa as the only available Nov. 22 choice.

Ottawa presented a logistical challenge.  Trips from the US to Canada require a passport and mine was expired.  Minneapolis has a passport office and I could renew my expired passport by bringing it in with an updated picture and $220.   But unable to find my expired passport, I had to start from scratch with a birth certificate from Idaho.  To get a copy of my birth certificate, I needed an official copy of another piece of paper documenting my legal name change back in 1978.  That piece of paper was buried in a vault and the only way to get a copy was a trip to the basement of the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis, where the lady behind the counter said she would order it for delivery the next week.  In a miraculous sequence of events, the process accelerated and by Monday, Nov. 18, I stood on the steps of the US Passport office in Minneapolis with a new passport in hand.

Only one logistical challenge remained – sign up for the test in Ottawa.  But now, after spending hundreds of dollars and watching a logistical miracle unfold around my passport, all the seats in Ottawa were full.   I called Red Hat and talked to Lauren with the training group.  Lauren orchestrated another logistical miracle to add an extra seat, and I reserved my seat in Ottawa a few hours later.

Now the real work – prepare for the test, travel to the site, pass the test, and go home.  Air travel cost between Minneapolis and Ottawa started at roughly $1050, confirming my decision to drive.  The test was Friday morning, so I was on the road from Minneapolis by 4:45 AM Central time Thursday.   I arrived at the Stardust Motel on Carling Road in Ottawa at 11:15 PM Eastern time, 17 1/2 hours later.

Canadian customs officers have ultimate power at the border and can deny entry to anyone they want for any reason they want.  My trouble at the Sault St. Marie border crossing started almost immediately as I rolled down my car window and handed a lady in a little booth my passport.

“And what brings you to Canada today?”

“I’m taking a test.”

“How long do you plan to be in the country?”


“And where is this test?”

“It’s in Ottawa.”  (I think alarm bells started going off her head.)

“Let me get this straight.  You’re driving all the way to Ottawa to take a test, then you’re turning around and going home?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“You are aware that Canada is a sovereign country, right?”

“Uhm, Ok.” (Not sure where she was going with this.)

“And you know Ottawa is 11 hours from here, right?”

“Well, Google maps tells me it’s about 9 hours, but OK.”

“So why are you taking this test in Ottawa?”

“Because the site in Atlanta was full.”

“What is this test anyway?”

“It’s for advanced Linux system administration.”

“Advanced what?  Why are you traveling to a different country just to take a test?”

“C’mon, What foreign country?  This is Canada. We’re friends. ” (Note to self – Canadian customs agents apparently don’t like appeals to friendship.)

“When was the last time you visited Canada?”

“Uhm, well, I guess it’s been a while.  Why?”

“OK, you need to park right over there and go inside for more questioning.”  (Uh-oh. This can’t be good.)

She directed me to a parking spot where several people in uniforms waited to escort me inside.

One of my escorts asked me what documentation I had to prove I really was going where I said I was going.  Thinking about it, I only had some emails.  I could open them on my tablet so I brought it in with me.  Maybe the emails would satisfy them.  I’ve been to former communist countries with less hassle.

I watched car after car after car easily cross into Canada while I slowly walked inside the building, flanked by uniformed guards as the clock and my upcoming night’s sleep ticked away.  Walking in the building, I saw 5 more people in uniform behind a counter on my right laughing about a video on a computer screen.  They sent me to the farthest counter, where a fat, gruff, balding grey haired man in uniform talked to a group of three people. As I approached the counter, he ordered me to step back and sit down at a table and wait.

“They told me to go to this counter.”

“And now I’m telling you to sit over there and wait.”

“If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather stand and stretch if I have to wait.”

“Suit yourself, I’ll be back after a while.  Don’t come up here until I tell you to.”

And then he left with the three people trailing.  I stretched my legs and back, stiff after 9 hours of driving so far that day, thinking about the 9 additional hours still to come and the clock ticking while I waited on the Canadian government.

The officers watching the comedy video barely looked up.  I asked one if he could take care of whatever it was I needed to take care of and he said no, that guy was the only one who could do it.  My only option – cool my heals and wait.

I needed to pee.

After a few minutes, Mr. Authority returned, motioned me up to his counter and asked me what was going on.  I gave him my passport and then made my next mistake.

“The lady outside hassled me and told me I need to come in here and take care of it.”

Major mistake. And then I made it worse.

“She didn’t hassle you.  You said you’re here for work so she sent you in here. That’s what she’s supposed to do! Do you think we just let anyone in our country who wants to come in?”

Dumbfounded, I said, “I see at least 10 cars out there and they’re all flowing right through.”


I wanted to walk outside and survey the license plates on those cars passing through the border, but a little voice in my head told me to shut up before I got myself into more trouble.  This guy controlled what I needed and I had nothing he wanted.  He had all the power and I had none.  He was the master and I was a dog.  Time to become meek and beg for mercy.

“I wouldn’t like that at all. I’ve been up since 3:30 this morning.  I just want to get where I’m going, take my test and go home.”


He took my passport and disappeared into a little back room. He came back out a few minutes later.

“Ever been convicted of a crime?”

 I was about to say “speeding tickets”, but my literal answers had already gotten me into trouble.  Speeding isn’t a crime anyway.  So I answered, “No.”

“Ever been denied entry into any country?”

“Not until right now, no.”

“Show me this proof you’re taking some sort of test in Ottawa.”

I showed him one of the Red Hat test confirmation emails and he said, “That doesn’t say it’s in Ottawa. What else ya got?”

“Uhm – well, here, take a look at this email.” I brought up an email thanking Lauren for opening the additional the seat for me.

“I never heard of any company named Red Hat.  What do they do?”

“They’re a software company.”

“Where are they?”

“They’re in North Carolina and they have offices all over the world.”

He looked me over one last time.

“OK, I’m going to let you in. BUT YOU NEED TO WORK ON YOUR ATTITUDE!”

“Thank you.”  (resisting the urge to further express my feelings.)

“Go give this paper to those two standing over there and be on your way.”

“Thank you.”

I still had to pee, but not bad enough to ask anyone here to use a bathroom.  As the uniformed guards escorted me to my car, I asked if any of them wanted to search it.  They said no and I drove away.  Welcome to Canada, eh.

I passed the test.  I’m now a proud holder of a Red Hat Advanced Linux System Administration Certificate of Expertise.

Total cost – $480 for the November test, $480 for the October test, $2800 for the original training and test, about $400 for the passport and required paperwork, 4 trips to the Minneapolis passport office and Hennepin County Government Center, around $1000 for travel costs for the training and test trips, 36 hours behind the wheel for the round trip to Ottawa, $40 per month for upgraded cell phone service in Canada and Mexico, sore legs and back, and a lesson in humility from some Canadian border agents.

Hopefully it was worth it. – A Classic IT Disaster

My family is OK with health insurance coverage for now and I live in Minnesota, which has its own website for navigating the local healthcare marketplace, so I don’t need to deal with the US website to find health insurance. But I was curious after looking at the news the past several days. I find it amazing that an Internet website generates front page newspaper and breathless TV coverage and I wanted to see what the fuss is all about.

My wife’s sister and her husband live in Indiana, so I wondered how health care coverage would look in their state and county. Navigating the website was straightforward and I found a few sample plans and pricing. The prices looked high, but each page boldly displayed caveats that the prices displayed were probably high and lower prices were most likely available by filling out a real application.

The website also mentioned a worksheet called the Kaiser Family Foundation health insurance cost and savings calculator and provided a helpful link. Answer a few quick questions using this worksheet and the website promised to generate more accurate price estimates.

So I followed the link and came to a page with some helpful explanations. So far so good.

When I clicked Next, presumably to start answering those few quick questions, a popup window with red text and yellow background popped up that said,

Please review your answers on this page,
there was a problem with one or more of

This question is mandatory.

I would love to fix my answers, but this page had no questions.

In less than 5 minutes, I found an obvious programming bug by taking a path through this website that any typical user would follow. Here is a screenshot, reduced in size to 50 percent to capture most of the page. Notice the popup message at the bottom about answering questions, but the page only has explanatory text. There are no questions to answer, but the website will not allow me to navigate away from this page without answering its nonexistent questions.

Now I see what the fuss is all about. If I stumbled across such an obvious bug in less than 5 minutes without even trying, what other bugs are lurking beneath the surface? Current news reports suggest this website is full of bugs, performance issues, and inaccurate information. After my experience, I believe the reports.

The consequences are predictable. Politicians with no IT experience beyond using Facebook and smartphones are screaming, and VIPs across the government with no IT experience are trying to hold other VIPs with no IT experience responsible for this mess.

Where have I seen this before? Perhaps with every big IT project ever conceived since the dawn of big IT projects? Why would any IT veteran be surprised this one has serious problems? This project has all the classic elements: A lofty goal at the beginning, political maneuvering among potential contractors for development money, squabbling constituencies during development, major changes in design and function throughout the process, no time for serious testing to meet a looming deadline, nobody in overall charge of the effort, and a search for scapegoats at the end when the project fails to meet expectations. And in a classic and insulting knee-jerk response, our most senior and clueless Executive Branch officials now promise us they’re bringing in the A-team of “experts” to fix it all.

The stakes are indeed high. By United States federal law, and affirmed by the United States Supreme Court, we Americans are forced alpha testers for a new piece of technology over which we have no control, and if the technology fails, we pay a fine. I see attorneys building entire careers from the lawsuits this debacle will generate.

The quick fix President Obama promises will not happen for many reasons. First, as a few grizzled IT veterans constantly remind me by metaphor, the calendar time for a 9 month pregnancy cannot be reduced by finding 9 people to each work one month. In IT terms, a pregnancy project only achieves its goal if one person does all the required tasks during 9 consecutive calendar months because the output from earlier months provides the input to later months.

Software development is not war and the Obamacare surge metaphor comparing this project with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a load of BS. Adding more programmers does not necessarily improve development time because at some point in any software development project, adding more labor becomes counterproductive. Even if they are “experts”. When the United States Federal government sends in their newly found “experts”, these new people will first climb a learning curve before becoming productive, and will then face the same project dependencies and constituencies as the earlier, presumably less capable team that came before them.

President Obama’s proposal to fix is like proposing new tires for the car to fix a broken engine. It’s nonsense.

Beyond rookie programming errors such as the one I found, the problems are fundamental. The real fixes will depend on all players cooperating and agreeing to a reasonable set of specifications. No matter how many “experts” our Government brings in, these experts have no power to persuade or coerce all the unrelated parties to work together. Consider:

  • insurance companies with no incentive to cooperate with government contracted software developers,
  • a federal government filled with too many high officials with too many big egos and too many new and brilliant half-baked ideas,
  • millions of users trying to use the system on the front end while developers scramble to fix bugs on the back end,
  • and nobody in overall charge,

and the result is a recipe for continued failure.

Future historians may well declare the new effort as the biggest, most spectacular failure in the history of IT projects.

A new level of malware sophistication

I woke up today around 4 AM when one of our cats jumped on my stomach.  By now, it’s a pounce and jump operation because he knows if I catch him, I’ll throw him across the room and bounce him off a wall.  So he pops up from the floor to the window pane, pounces on my stomach from above my head, then flies off the bed, all in less than one second.  It’s an effective technique to wake me up, not so good to persuade me to feed him.

Some days, I really don’t like cats.

Since I was awake, I staggered out to the other room to do some computer work.  As I sat down in front of this Windows 7 system, I saw a window on the screen that made my blood run cold.  There, right in front of me, was a window telling me this computer had several virus infections and a “click here” button to clean them all up.  I lost count of the number of fake AV systems I’ve cleaned over the years, but this one was right here at home.

Fake AV, or fake antivirus, is a great scam.  Here is how it works:  Vicki the virus author decides she wants to make some illicit money.  So Vicki writes an evil program that pops up a window on a computer screen with an alarming and official looking message about dozens or hundreds of viruses found.   But the whole thing is a lie, designed to entice naïve users into giving up sensitive information.

Vicki will probably craft her program to display a reassuring ”Click here” button with a promise to make it all better.  When the user “clicks here”, her program will probably prompt for a credit card number, with the promise of a $24.95 download to take care of all the problems.  When the user enters the credit card number, the program will send the data back to Vicki, and Vicki can either have a great shopping spree at the credit card holder’s expense, or sell the credit card number in an underground market.

Vicki’s program may also leave behind a key logger or other malicious software designed to track user mouse clicks and keystrokes and send the results back to Vicki.  Vicki can mine this data at her leisure, stealing anything of value she wants.

It’s serious business.  If you “clicked here” for one of these programs, and especially if you gave a credit card number, stop reading this right now, call your credit card company, and cancel the credit card.   Also call your other credit card companies and your bank and sign up for a credit watch service.   Pull your computer off the Internet and have a trusted professional thoroughly clean it.  Don’t mess around with this – identity theft can make your life miserable for the next several years.

But Vicki has a distribution challenge – how does she distribute her evil program to millions of potential victims?  Enter many of today’s popular news, weather, sports, and gaming websites.   These sites make money by selling ads.  When a user visits, say,, that website will also download several banner ads from all over the Internet.   Those ads do not come from ESPN, they come from advertisers who pay ESPN.

So when you visit the ESPN website, you also visit several other advertiser websites who display their ads in areas ESPN assigns.  Any one of these can download programs to your computer for, say, displaying animation, touring the advertiser client products, or displaying a popup window claiming you have dozens of virus infections.   ESPN cannot possibly vet all its potential advertisers and must depend on the advertisers to keep their own websites clean.

I purposely picked on ESPN because ESPN had a well documented incident a few years ago, but all websites that sell third party ads have the same potential issue.  If any one of these ad websites are compromised, and that ad happens to display on your computer, your computer is in danger.  From the users’ point of view, it’s like a game of Russian Roulette.

From Vicki’s point of view, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of these ad websites.  Vicki only needs to find one with poor security so she can inject her program and make it act as an unwitting distribution point.

Vicki no doubt subscribes to an automated underground service that constantly probes these websites, looking for vulnerabilities.  When she finds an eligible candidate, she injects her payload, compromises the website, and sits back and waits for the credit card numbers to flow in.

Vicki’s evil payload eventually found its way to one of my computers when my wife visited an Internet game site the other day.

If you find such a program running on your computer, do not immediately shut down and reboot – this will generally trigger these programs to deliver their evil payload and they will own you after the reboot.  Instead, launch your Task Manager, find the offending process, kill it, find the offending program on your hard drive, delete it, then do a thorough virus scan using a reputable tool.  Or call me and I’ll guide you over the phone.

Curiously, this fake AV program was a little different than most.  This one claimed it was a Norton virus scanner and a quick trip into my Windows Task Manager found a process named nss.exe.  NSS.exe is, in fact, the name of the free Norton Standalone Scanner.  But in this case, it was an evil program pretending to be the real nss.exe.  I killed it and the fake AV window went away.

Next, I searched my hard drive for any file named nss.exe.  I found two occurrences, both in folders with Norton in the name, under C:\Program Files (x86).  Looking at these folders, I found dozens of .DLL, .exe, and other files.  This was definitely not a typical virus scenario.  Most directories containing malware programs have a single, hidden program with a random name.  This one was different – this one went to a lot of trouble to look like a real Norton installation.  The creation date for nss.exe was May 7, 2013.  The creation date for the directories I found were from July 28, 2013 at 5:39 PM.  The time as I write this is around 4:30 AM on July 30, 2013.

This gets even more interesting.   Looking at Control Panel…Programs and Features, I found references to two packages claiming to be Norton virus scan tools.  When I right-clicked and selected the “Remove” option, a new window popped up asking me if I wanted to install the Norton virus removal tool.  I also heard my hard drive rattle a little bit, suggesting to my paranoid mind this virus may have delivered its payload.

Nice try Vicki, but you failed to solve two problems:

  1. I never installed anything from Symantec or Norton on this computer, although it’s possible my wife may have done so.
  2. Even if somebody else installed this stuff without my knowledge, why would a removal option instead prompt me to install something new?

I think, with help from my wife,  I stumbled across a new variation on an old theme.  I’ll bet a zillion dollars, this is a particularly sophisticated fraud.  I think my hypothetical Vicki ripped off the Norton Standalone Virus Scan installation and replaced the main program, nss.exe, with an evil program of the same name.  It probably found its way to a compromised ad website, where my wife inadvertently downloaded it from the free Internet game site she likes to visit.

To be safe, I did a System Restore and restored that system to its state 4 days ago before the last Windows Update, or 2 days before the fake Norton installation.  After a reboot, Control Panel…Programs and Features no longer shows anything claiming to be a Norton product.  I deleted the offending directories and started up a full virus scan in another window using a popular tool named Malwarebytes.  The scan took one hour and 14 minutes to finish and I am pleased to report this desktop is clean.

With hindsight, I probably should have taken some screen shots and quarantined those directories so I could present it all in this blog post.   But, just like most users, this desktop is a tool and I need it up and running.  I didn’t think about documenting it all until after I removed it.

For my non-technical friends, the moral of all this?  Just like with your car, be on the lookout for unusual behavior.   If your car flashes the “Check Engine” light or exhibits unusual behavior, you look into it, right?  If your computer starts to act differently, you should also look into it.  Call me or Contact Us if the problem looks complicated.  You have important data inside that computer and believe me, you do not want criminals across the Internet messing around with your identity.

For my more technical friends, I think the malware arms race just ratcheted up a notch.  This looks like a new level of sophistication.  Watch out for variations on this theme as Vicki’s friends craft other pieces of malware to imitate other free virus scan products.

Vicki found the wrong user to mess with this morning.  Hopefully, you can also stop Vicki and her friends cold when their programs try to invade your computer.  Be vigilant.

Enough is enough!

I just finished wading through 471 new comments from the past 3 days on my blog post from late March titled, “How to spot a phishy email”.   The good news, I guess, is my blog post found its way onto the search engines and is getting some visibility.  The bad news – every single one of those 471 comments, along with nearly all the hundreds of comments before it are automated spam solicitations.  The overwhelming bulk of those are for drugs of some kind.  Ambien and Tramadol seem popular.  I have no clue why.

A few comments are designed to stroke my ego.  This one is typical, coming from IP Address somewhere in Spain:

Its like you learn my thoughts! You seem to understand a lot about this, such as you wrote the e-book in it or something. I feel that you simply could do with some percent to force the message home a little bit, however other than that, this is magnificent blog. A great read. I will certainly be back.

Notice how the text is highly complimentary and also vague.  The email addresses are always from Hotmail or Gmail or Yahoo or one of the other free services, and the names are always random characters and numbers.

I am an advocate of open and vigorous discussion and I participate in several technology forums and email groups.  I contribute lots of comments and I help others troubleshoot problems online.  I like to think that’s what community is all about.

But here, on my own website, I find I am wasting time wading through drug and porn and SEO pitches and evaluating whether each comment came from a real person or a spambot, and whether the comment is even remotely connected to the subject matter.

This is not what community is all about, this is a few parasites trying to freeload and use my website to sell their questionable and illegal junk.

I’ve had enough.  I am turning comments off.  My time is too valuable and I’ve worked too hard to build a high quality website and blog to allow runaway spam to consume my time.  If you want to sell drugs and porn and questionable SEO over the Internet, you’re not welcome here.  Shoo.  Go somewhere else.

If you are a real person reading this and want to weigh in with an opinion or comment, even a hostile one, then  fill out the Contact Us form.  If it’s on topic, I’ll post it and give you credit for it.

Why should “normal” people care about IT?

I did a presales call with a small dentist office a few months ago.  I have some dentist customers, so I’ve come to understand a little bit about how dentist offices operate.  But this office was, well, different.  The “server” was really an old, failing Windows XP PC tucked away in a dusty corner of an unused office.  Other workstations were in similar states of disrepair.  This office had a challenge – the receptionist’s brother maintained all the IT equipment, but he recently moved from Minnesota to Colorado and was no longer available to come onsite and resolve the latest emergency.

I promise – I am not making this up.

Apparently, nobody knew how to boot their “server” and they had to call the brother every morning to get the office up and running.  The process was generally to turn that central PC off and back on again and hope it booted. Once up and running, nobody was to touch it for the rest of the day.  Although PCs in the exam rooms had the ability to store a few patient updates locally, they all depended on this failing central repository to access historical patient data, including X-Ray images.  If that PC died, all the X-Rays and all patient data died with it.

The dentist/business owner said he knew he needed a server and we talked at length about setting one up.  Then I asked my key question:  “What happens if this PC you’re using as a server dies and you can’t access any patient X-Rays?”  His answer left me speechless.  “I don’t need computers to practice dentistry.”  The meeting went downhill after that, and this dentist office never returned another phone call or email.

I use that dentist as an example because, unfortunately, his attitude seems typical of so many business owners and otherwise intelligent executives.  Here is another quick story to drive the point home.  Several years ago, I was in a presales meeting at a bank to talk about IT security.  The banker proudly showed me the shiny new security audit report he undoubtedly paid a small fortune for and asked me to look it over.   I sat across the table from him, looked over the report, and commented it covered the bank’s website pretty well, but where was the section about the bank internal IT operations?  His reply – “Thanks for coming over” and he quickly hustled me out the door.  To this this very day, I don’t know what nerve I touched.  But I have some theories.

I think IT is boring for most “normal” people.  Most people don’t care about what DHCP servers do or the difference between 1 gb and 10 mb.  Some bankers probably never stop to think about the difference between their internal operations and public facing website.  At least one dentist never took the time to think through what would happen if all his patient records disappeared.   And because IT is boring and “technical” and costs money, it must be at best a necessary evil.  For most business decision makers I’ve met, IT is not an asset to be maintained and enhanced, IT is an expense to be minimized.

This is a shame.  Consider:

  • medical and dental clinics, who keep patient data inside a server instead of a large room full of paper files and film X-Rays.
  • transportation companies who can keep images of millions of invoices and other paperwork inside a computer network instead of whole buildings filled with file cabinets
  • email and the world wide web
  • automated airline check-in systems
  • online banking
  • and thousands or maybe millions of other applications we take for granted today.

What would happen if we turned all those off?  Think about a bank branch without access to the central databases.  Think about an airline without the automated ticketing and check-in systems we’ve become used to using.  Think about cutting off access to email and the world wide web.  Think about a dentist trying to run a modern office without access to computers and historical patient data.

If you are a small business owner, here is a challenge.   Turn off your servers and computers for one day and try to run without them.  Observe the chaos that will surely follow.  Try to calculate the lost revenue from all the customer service disasters that will happen.  Try to calculate the increased cost when everyone has to operate manually, with no access to any data.

I dare you to take up these challenges and send me some comments about your experience.  And then, let’s have a conversation about how to protect your critical assets and how you can use IT to at least gain competitive parity and maybe a competitive edge versus your competition.

Computer Whodunit Detective Story – the Conclusion


In part one of our computer detective saga, the story opened with a few users unable to access their emails. Similar to a Hollywood detective story, we followed the clues through several unexpected twists and turns, with each clue answering questions and generating new questions.  Continuing in the style of great whodunit detective mysteries, we eventually uncovered the culprit, a rogue DHCP server.  This changed everything.

And now the conclusion.

DHCP – Dynamic Host Control Protocol – is the reason we can connect our laptops and tablets and smartphones to the Internet.  DHCP servers assign all the attributes our devices need to enable communications.  Think of the Internet as similar to the telephone network, but with one important difference.  In the telephone network, your phone number stays the same no matter where your phone travels. On the Internet, an IP Address defines your device.  But unlike phone numbers, IP Addresses change, depending on where your device is located.  That’s why we need DHCP servers, to assign IP Addresses and other attributes to devices when they attach to an office network or the Internet.

Here is how DHCP works.  When you connect your device to a network, your device sends a broadcast to anyone on the local network who will listen.  It’s essentially a cry for help.  (Help!  Load me with what I need so I can talk to the world.)  The DHCP Server listens to the broadcast and downloads an IP Address and other attributes to the requesting device.  This is called an IP Address lease, and the lease expires after a settable amount of time, called a TTL (Time to Live).  Once the device acquires its IP Address lease, it can interact with the world.

DHCP is a thing of beauty when set up properly and works so well, only a few hard-core IT people think about it anymore.  Except when things go wrong.  And one of the worst things that can go wrong is a rogue DHCP Server wreaking havoc on the network.  When this happens, random devices get the wrong attributes and lose all ability to communicate.  Depending on how long the lease TTLs are set, sometimes the passage of a few hours can cure the problem, or sometimes make it worse.  The problem can “hop” from device to device as leases expire and new leases come online.  Sometimes devices can end up with duplicate IP Addresses that come and go and interfere with communications.  This can be maddening to troubleshoot.

The usual culprit in an office network is a wireless router somebody brought in from home.  This happens all the time as end users decide they want to build their own private wireless networks, but don’t think about the consequences to everyone else as their wireless router hands out home IP Addresses to random devices across the company network.

Obviously, the cure for a rogue DHCP server is to find it and get rid of it.   The challenge is how to find it?

Enter structured cabling.  Essentially, a structured cable plant runs network cables from stations all over the building to a central patch panel in the server room.  Each cable is labeled, preferably with the labels on both ends of the same cable matching.   All buildings should have a structured cabling.  Unfortunately, many don’t.  Fortunately, this one did.  And that proved to be a tremendous aid finding my rogue DHCP server.

Instead of walking the entire building and looking for a device that looked out of place, I set up a laptop near the patch panel and assigned the laptop a hard IP Address to fit the rogue DHCP server scheme.  After warning everyone their network connections may be disrupted briefly, I set up the laptop to continuously ping the rogue DHCP server IP address while I disconnected and reconnected each network cable.

The idea – one of those cables had to lead to the rogue DHCP server.  I would find the cable leading to my rogue DHCP server by watching for pings to stop responding when I disconnected that cable.  Once I found the correct cable, I could walk to the other end of that cable with a hammer and put the rogue DHCP Server on the other end out of its misery.

I eventually found it, chased it to the other end of the cable, and disconnected it.  It turned out, my friend James brought in a wireless router over a weekend to help with some work he needed to do.  He forgot to disconnect it and that was why my users started complaining on Monday morning.

The moral of the story?  These things happen and that’s why good troubleshooting techniques are invaluable.

P.T. Barnum may be smiling in his grave today


I spent an awful day yesterday with Microsoft Office 2013 Home and Business Edition.  Full disclosure – my company is a Microsoft Registered Partner and this blog entry won’t make me any friends in Redmond.  But right now, I am frustrated beyond belief and I will have trouble sleeping until I put electronic pen to virtual paper.

After more than 20 years of Microsoft producing a product named Office, by now everyone knows what it includes – a spreadsheet named Excel, a word processing program named Word, an email client named Outlook, a presentation package named Powerpoint, a personal database product named Access, and a desktop publishing program named Publisher.  Different editions of Office include different combinations of packages and licensing and Microsoft mixes them up with each new version.  By now, Office is the de-facto standard for electronic document formats.

With Office 2013, Microsoft combined the audacity that comes with monopoly power with technological incompetence.  What possible rational reason could anyone give to force customers to create a unique login on the Microsoft website for every single retail copy of Office Home and Business?  If you own, say, 50 computers and you have 50 copies of Office Home and Business, you need 50 Microsoft logins to make it work.

Sheer insanity.  Or is it?  Microsoft is filled with competent engineers and savvy marketers.  Microsoft did this for a reason, and this is really a story about a 21st century shakedown scheme.  But it’s buried underneath a pile of technical jargon so very few will notice.

With Office 2013, Microsoft offers three licensing choices, called Volume licensing, retail licensing, and a subscription service named Office 365.  Office 365 is new, the rest have been around a long time.

Volume licenses come with lots of flexibility businesses care about.  Companies can deploy volume licenses any way they see fit.  A volume license for Microsoft Office Standard edition includes only Word, Excel, and Outlook and lists for roughly $370.  Microsoft Office Professional Plus includes all the Office packages and lists for roughly $500 per seat.

Retail licenses cost less, but are less flexible.  For example, Office Home and Business includes Excel, Outlook, Powerpoint, and Word – more packages than Office Standard, but with a lower price of around $220.  The Home and Business license is only good for one computer.  Once installed on any computer, that license is married to that computer forever.  If your PC dies and you need to reinstall Office Home and Business, you need permission from Microsoft.

So far, so good.  Here comes the audacious part.

Starting with Office 2013, Microsoft purposely made Office Home and Business a nightmare to install by adding an artificial impediment.  Microsoft now requires a unique login on its website for every single individual copy of Office 2013 Home and Business.  For each individual login, you must specify the name, phone number, address, email address, and other identifying information.  After setting up this login, you can download and install your individually tailored copy of Office 2013 Home and Business.  The download is roughly 2.2 gigabytes. Customers who use T1 Internet connections will need almost 4 hours per download and each installation now requires its own download. 50 installations means 50 downloads.

If anything goes wrong – a network hiccup during the download, a wrong answer to a question, anything – you’ll spend hours fiddling with registry entries and deleting files by hand because it won’t remove cleanly. I had 4 identical brand new computers and spent most of a day cleaning the remnants of a botched installation on one, with lots of telephone advice from Microsoft Customer Support about undocumented registry entries.

And finally comes the new offering, Office 365.  It’s a Microsoft hosted solution, meaning you connect to a website and work on your documents from there.  The cost is $99 per year or around $10 per month.   No installation hassles, quick and easy to set up, no up-front financial pain for end users.  Your documents live inside a Microsoft cloud, so they are accessible globally and you don’t need a server anymore. Naïve CFOs and Purchasing Departments will love it.

P. T. Barnum reportedly once said ”there’s a sucker born every minute” and he may be laughing in his grave at this modern massive con job. Why would Microsoft price its hosted offering so low relative to a locally installed copy of Office?  Why would Microsoft take such apparently boneheaded steps to artifically complicate installations of Office Home and Business?  And why would Microsoft spend $millions for the cloud capacity to store and manage millions and millions of new user accounts?

Only one answer makes sense – increased revenue.   How does spending $millions to host all this stuff generate revenue?

I can think of only one answer – and I promise, you won’t like it.  Microsoft wants to be the repository for all your personal and business content.  Office 365 will capture your documents, will capture your email, Lync will capture your video meetings.  If Microsoft can make your installation experience expensive and miserable when installing on your own computer, and make it hassle free and low cost when hosting in its cloud, many people will opt for the path of least resistance and put their documents in the Microsoft cloud.  Millions of Office 365 users will blindly trust Microsoft with their most private data because getting started is cheap and easy.

Once Microsoft captures all your content, marketers will pay Microsoft a holy fortune to slice, dice, and analyze your content.  You will provide raw material for marketers and you will pay Microsoft for the privilege.   But marketers will pay much more.  Marketing will be the real Microsoft revenue source – your $99 per year subscription is just a few giblets on the real gravy train.

What to do about it?  If you don’t care if an army of marketers digs deep into your content, trust Microsoft.  If you do care about privacy, maybe now is the time to start looking at alternatives.  Several are available, including Libre Office and other free and minimal cost offerings.  If enough people start adopting some of today’s great alternatives, maybe Microsoft’s monoply power can be tamed.  But if history is a good predictor, this probably won’t happen.

Big versus small is a lousy way to judge IT service companies

Big versus small may be one of the oldest debates in business.

Big companies are perceived as safe, stable, predictable, comfortable.  Small companies are the opposite; just prefix “un” to all those adjectives.  This debate is especially contentious in the IT industry, where everyone wants safe, stable, predictable, and comfortable.

Full disclosure – Infrasupport is currently a one person company. I’ve lost business simply because I’m a one person company and the victim of a negative stereotype.  Frustrating doesn’t begin to describe the feeling after pouring countless hours into crafting a quality solution to a customer problem, only to lose to an inferior solution at the end because of my company size.

So in this article, I want to examine some of the stereotypes around big companies to determine if they match reality.  Am I nuts?  Are big companies really safer partners?

At a macro level, here are the top 15 companies by revenue from 2007 :

  1. Wal-mart
  2. Exxon Mobile
  3. General Motors
  4. Chevron
  5. ConocoPhillips
  6. General Electric
  7. Ford Motor
  8. Citigroup
  9. Bank of America
  10. American International Group
  11. J.P. Morgan Chase
  12. Berkshire Hathaway
  13. Verizon Communications
  14. Hewlett-Packard
  15. IBM

Of those top 15 companies, at least 5 companies –  GM, Citigroup, Bank of America, AIG, J.P. Morgan either received a US Government bailout or ceased to exist during the great 2008 recession.  Do I really need to rehash the horror stories around American International Group and the other supposedly stable large financial powerhouse companies?

Over the past few years, Hewlett Packard fired a CEO who wanted to be a rock star, created a scandal when members of its own board of directors illegally spied on each other, fired another CEO in a sex scandal, spent $11 billion to buy a software company based on questionable accounting numbers, and shocked the IT industry by threatening to pull out of the PC marketplace after buying a failing tablet company.  This is stability?

Here are a few more recent big company horror stories:

  • Most of the entire US Airline industry filed for bankruptcy in the past few years.
  • The entire US Auto industry would have failed without a taxpayer bailout.
  • When the entire US Financial industry melted down, I bailed them out with taxes from my small company.
  • Top managers at companies such as Enron, Adelphia Communications, Qwest, and WorldCom are now retired and living in prison.  Most of these companies no longer exist, having been taken down by massive fraud.

The IT industry is littered with the remnants of once large and supposedly stable companies now in the ash pit of history.   Make a case to the 120,000 former employees of Digital Equipment Corporation about big company stability.   Other names, such as Burroughs, Sperry/Univac, NCR, Control Data, Honeywell, and Cray are now either long forgotten or skeletons of their former selves.  More recently, Sun Microsystems no longer exists, and now the entire PC segment is in turmoil.

Closer to home, during the dot com bust of 1999 – 2001, the IT Service market in the Minneapolis St. Paul area collapsed by roughly 50 percent.  Does anyone remember local companies such as Born Information Services, Ranier Technologies, All Systems Go, Benchmark Computer Learning, and a host of others?  In the late 1990s, these were among the leading IT consulting firms in the Twin Cities area, with combined revenue in the hundreds of millions.  Today, they are all long gone.  One firm, All Systems Go, sold to a national chain.  Within the first few years, everyone in the original All Systems Go either left or was forced out, leaving a legacy of unsatisfied customers and angry former employees behind.

This is stability?

The 2013 Twin Cities IT service industry is still tumultuous.  In at least one large firm, technicians hired two years ago are now the most senior employees in the company.

Despite the overwhelming body of evidence to the contrary, many customers still use company size as a major factor in finding an IT support partner.  The perception of a deep bench seems to offer an illusion of stability and this prejudice against small companies is deep and extraordinarily difficult to overcome.

Let’s put prejudice aside and start thinking rationally.  The fact is, nobody in the IT service industry can afford a deep bench.  People are expensive, and people without paying customers will quickly kill any service company.   If you’re a potential customer looking for IT service, and a deep bench is your primary selection criteria, you will likely be disappointed.

I propose using a more accurate set of criteria to evaluate IT service companies.  Look at the quality and longevity of the relationships between individual people who work for the customer and individual people who work for the IT service company.  The key to a successful IT support experience is the quality of these human relationships, not the size of the bench.

All IT support companies, including Infrasupport, can build nice looking websites and publish meaningless statistics about all our certifications.  Look past that to evaluate what is really important.


Ask me about Infrasupport’s long standing relationship with customers.  Get to know Infrasupport by trying a small project as a test.  If you like it, try another bigger project.  If my company earns your trust, then reward Infrasupport with your business.  If Infrasupport fails to earn your trust, we can both learn from the experience and move on.

All I ask is for a level playing field.

How a gross IT security lapse hurt a US Senate campaign


This story is personal.   It is one of the best examples I’ve seen where poor IT security practices and the physical world collide and leave a trail of destruction.

Way back in 2006, I registered my name with the Norm Coleman for Senate campaign. Although the US Senate election was two years away, I felt kind of like an insider when the Coleman campaign sent me email updates.  Fortunately for me, I never gave the campaign a credit card number.

The 2008 Minnesota Senate election between Norm Coleman and Al Franken was too close to call.  There were recounts, court challenges, and recounts of recounted recounts.  Franken eventually won by a few dozen votes.

This is where it gets personal.

On March 10, 2009, I received this email, reproduced below with original spelling errors:

From: Wikileaks Press Office [] Sent: Tuesday, March 10, 2009 9:29 PM To: undisclosed-recipients Subject: Norm Coleman leak

Senator Norm Coleman supporter / contributor list leaked.

Your name, address and other details appear on a membership list leaked to us from the Norm Coleman Senate campaign.

If you have contributed financially to the Coleman campaign there are additional details.

We understand that Norm Coleman became aware of the leak in January.

The information has been passed around out of public view.

We have sent you this note as a curtesy in case Norm Coleman has not contacted you previously.

We have not released the material yet, but may do so within the next few days.

In line with our policy of completely neturality for whistleblowers and political sources, the material will be treated impartially.  We support all those who engage in the struggle for political reform and wish you well.

For additional details, see: [Web links in the remainder of the email are no longer any good]

Apparently, my name and email address were now in the public domain because I filled out a web form on the Coleman for Senate website.  Not a big deal for me – I’m already on several spam lists anyway.  But information about all of Coleman’s online donors was also in the public domain, including credit card numbers and security codes.  This was a big deal.

Apparently, after the election and during one of the many recount challenges in January, 2009, the Coleman campaign decided to move its website.

Unfortunately, the campaign left a copy of its website content at the old hosting site, wide open for the whole world to see.  One of the files was an unencrypted spreadsheet listing donor contact information, credit card numbers, and security codes.  This is a wildly reckless violation of security best practices and PCI (Payment Card Industry) rules.  Credit card information should never be stored on the same system as a public facing website.  If the website is breached, the credit card information is also at risk.  This data should reside in a back end database server with carefully crafted access controls, putting another line of defense between this sensitive information and potential thieves.  And as a final line of defense, credit card information should always be encrypted, which at least makes it difficult for data thieves to exploit.

Organizations storing donor or customer sensitive information have an almost sacred duty to protect that information.  After all, these are the people  who fund and trust the organization.  With its amateur approach to security, the Coleman campaign demonstrated a reckless disrespect for its own donors’ trust and paid dearly for it.

Adria Richards, an IT consultant specializing in website security, found the old website content, took a screenshot of what she found, and posted the screenshot on her blog.  Here is the only remaining evidence I can find of Richards’ blog, and here is a PDF copy in case the web link goes bad.  The Minnesota Independent published an article on January 28 2009 about the incident.  Here is the article and here is a PDF copy.

While Richards’ detective work is admirable, she should have notified the Coleman campaign first, before publicizing the problem. Her failure to contact the campaign before publicizing her findings violated an ethical best practice.

Sometime between January 28 and early March, 2009, Wikileaks obtained a copy of the spreadsheet, and that led to the email I found in my inbox when I woke up the morning of March 10.  The public reaction came fast and furious.  Here is another Minnesota Independent article and PDF copy.  Here is a Computerworld article and PDF copy.  And here is a Minnesota Independent article and PDF copy with donor reactions. Predictably, donors were upset and at least one donor reported being victimized by credit card fraud.

For the next few days, the story saturated Minnesota TV and print media.  Although the Coleman campaign tried to defend itself in the press, it ended up with a major public relations black eye as the campaign alienated its own donors and supporters.

Coleman eventually lost the recount battle in one of the closest US Senate elections in United States history.  In early 2013, Coleman floated the idea of trying a rematch against Franken in the 2014 election. A few days later, Coleman announced he would not run in 2014.

I wonder how much Coleman’s poor IT security practices hurt his political career?  After studying this incident and Coleman’s bungled reaction, I know I don’t want Norm Coleman representing me in the US Senate or anywhere else.  I have a hunch many others feel the same way.