Last week's news that a computer virus had found its way into the America's drone fleet was less settling than the fact that the Air Force had no idea where it came from or how to fix it. "We keep wiping it off, and it keeps coming back," a source told Wired's Noah Shachtman, who originally broke the story. "We think it's benign. But we just don't know." The good news this week is that they think they've found the source and insist that the virus is "more of a nuisance than a threat." The bad news is it came from a small, possibly banned portable hard drive infected with "malware that is routinely used to steal log-in and password data from people who gamble or play games like Mafia Wars online," one source told the Associated Press. (Updated below: Mafia Wars maker Zynga disputes this claim.) This whole fiasco is starting to sound like an Onion article.
In fact, The Onion wrote a similar story two years ago! It's about the Pentagon losing an external hard drive packed containing all of their favorite teevee shows and possibly some confidential military secrets. "The department's inspector general has vowed a full investigation, and military police have tightened security around other stores of highly sensitive data, including the file cabinet with all the takeout menus," the article jokes.
Back in reality, the military is struggling on the cybersecurity front. This latest incident is another embarrassing breach in a year marred by embarrassing breaches. This summer LulzSec hacked into a series of government websites--from U.S. Senate to the CIA--just for fun. However, the real scare came in August when a security software firm revealed that a number of American companies and government agencies had been targeted over the course of five years in one of the world's largest and most comprehensive cyber attacks to date. The Pentagon didn't even know they'd been hit.
As a result, the military has been clamping down its computer networks and scurrying to find vulnerabilities. The AP reports that portable hard drives like the one that infected the drone fleet are "common sources of computer infections" and as such "the Pentagon has banned the smaller flash drives from most Defense Department computers because of the escalating cyber threats." It's unclear if the hard drive containing what we'll call the Mafia Wars Malware was contraband, but soldiers love of gaming is becoming a source of concern. As the Pentagon continues to expand its cybersecurity program, the AP says that experts at the Defense Cyber Crime Center near Fort Meade are extending the scope of their testing to include "a vast expanse of computer technology--from cell phones and tiny flash drives to iPads, Wii consoles and Nintendo games."
All of the Pentagon's new efforts should be comforting, but we're still left wringing our hands. In hustling to build futuristic technology to keep our military a step ahead of our enemies, the military is tripping over its own feet. What's more is the fact that they're spending taxpayer dollars doing it. Rachel Maddow is very upset.
Update: Zynga is disputing the AP's Mafia Wars connection. "We have no indications that suggest Zynga's Mafia Wars was connected with the malware that infected the Pentagon's drone program," Zynga said in a statement. "We actively take steps to maintain and protect the trust of our customers, including educating our players about the risks associated with visiting untrusted sites and downloading untrusted applications. Both of those actions can increase the risk of getting infected with malware."
It's worth noting that malware is often wrapped in fake packaging to make people think that they're getting an update or an email from a particular game or company. This is a type of hoax known as "phishing" that's designed to steal log-in and password information.