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Computer Virus Plunges Government Agency Into Dark Ages

Nearly three months ago, the 215 employees of a mild-mannered Commerce Department bureau stepped into a time machine set for the early '90s. That's where they've been working ever since.

Well, almost.

It was 12 weeks ago when an aggressive computer virus slammed the Economic Development Administration, or EDA, forcing it to go unplugged, from its network at least, according to a story on the Washington Post's politics blog.

So, no more email and no more Web.

The EDA's employees at six regional offices had to resort to mailing letters and sliding urgent documents into the venerable — and decidedly old-school — fax machine.

Of course, the government's IT brain trust got to work immediately to root out the virus, stanch the attack and put everything right. But they haven't been able to isolate the virus, and as days turned into weeks, the problem at EDA has become the longest-ever breach of a federal network.

The Post quotes Commerce Secretary John Bryson as saying his department doesn't know exactly what happened, but "we have the best resources in the federal government looking into this."

The story goes on to say:

[The] crippled system is evidence that every government network is vulnerable to cyber attacks that could disrupt business and spread. The number of intrusions reported to the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team exploded to 44,000 in fiscal year 2011 from 5,500 in fiscal 2007.

Most of the attacks were swatted away. Others were serious. In recent years, hackers have penetrated e-mail and other systems at the Defense and State departments and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and attacked another Commerce bureau that handles sensitive information.

Cyber experts have repeatedly pointed to a lack of system security at Commerce. The agency's IT systems "are constantly exposed to an increasing number of cyber attacks, which are becoming more sophisticated and more difficult to detect," Inspector General Todd J. Zinser wrote last year.

The bureau has continued to make do as employees are, gradually, brought back online and returned to 2012. Many others are still waiting, and the EDA's business, which is to award grants to distressed communities, has slowed to a halt.

"If someone told me I wouldn't have e-mail for this long, I would have said it's not possible," said Jane Reimer, a planner in the Denver office who manually processed hundreds of grant applications. "I thought it was my lifeline."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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