Monday, September 02, 2013

Past is prologue: September is a month to be very careful; were some of us warned before 9/11 by a phishing email Labor Day weekend 2001?

In September 2001, during my last four months at ING-ReliaStar in Minneapolis, there were a few little incidents that sound today oddly prescient of today’s warnings about cybewarfare and even power grid security.

September 1, 2001 was a sunny Saturday, and I had just moved into a larger unit in a convenient modern downtown highrise apartment building, the Churchill.   I guess this started a sequence that confirms the adage, “You never know what is going to happen in the future.”  I went up to Duluth and then onto Thunder Bay, Ontario, for the Labor Day weekend.  On Saturday night, I wasn’t able to get AOL up on my laptop in the motel with its connection.  Sunday night, in Thunder Bay, I did, although AOL charged something like $1.95 or an out-of-country connection session.  I recall an odd email with attachment with a subject line including the characters “911” in it.   It had come in during the middle of the day Saturday.   I figured it was spam and would deliver a virus and simply deleted or marked it as spam and never looked at it.  A few friends reported getting a similar email.  I wonder what I would have “known” had I read it.
On Tuesday, September 4, during lunch at work, I walked over to a Walgreens downtown (Minneapolis) and happened to see a “Popular Science” magazine with a flashy cover communicating the idea that terrorists could destroy the power grid and all personal electronic with nearby EMP explosions.  I’ve discussed that particularly on the Books blog (April 13, 2013 and July 20, 2012).  That possibility actually inspires a scene in the film “Oceans 11”, which I would see on December 7, the last film I would see before learning of my layoff.  Again, others in the office saw the Popular Science story, one techie in particular (he alone had a server under his desk in his cubicle).
On Thursday, September 6, the company was hit with the worst virus attack ever, from a critter called the “Magister” virus.  It could steal clients’ personal information.  Tech support went through the entire company and had to clean about a quarter of the desktop computers.  Mine was not infected, but the woman whom I worked with “fixing bugs” was, and she had a day without access to her own desktop. They said, “this is the real thing”.  They got everything cleaned up by Sunday, September 9.
Some of this is more a story for the “IT Jobs” blog, but Monday night, September 10, I saw the only “water volleyball” game in the 33rd floor pool of the apartment building, with the glitter of downtown Minneapolis at night just outside.  It’s quite spectacular.  Tuesday morning, I did not find out about the 9/11 attacks until a woman came to my cubicle about 8:25 AM CDT just as I had closed a couple of production support tickets for user problems.
We actually went on a “team building” event, a cruise on the St. Croix river, 30 miles away that day.  
We didn’t hear any of the horrible unfolding news until we got back about 4:30 PM. 
Two weeks later there was another virus incident, but much less widespread.  But the quirky circumstances were such that I feared my own home computing environment, from which I maintained my own websites supporting my books, could be compromised.  I spent some time talking to the “server” guy (who had seen the PS report and gotten the same bizarre 911 email earlier in the month) about it.
The next morning I looked at my personal appointment calendar, and saw that I had a scheduled meeting with my project leader and his manager, to “discuss issues”.  I quickly found out that they were concerned that  I had taken another team’s concern when the intricacies of this second “virus attack” weren’t my business.   I can certainly believe they were wrong.  This was, of course, during those crazy weeks right after 9/11 in which nobody knew what to expect.  The news media contained speculation that ordinary computer users or “newbie” websites would be contaminated with “steganography” planted by terrorists.  Web use could become much more regulated.  As for work,  I expected layoffs and a downturn later, and suddenly I felt it might personally be for the best.  That would come in December, and maybe it was the best thing for me, given the huge severance.
What to take away from all this?  Seemingly unrelated, random events seem to occur, and then you find out they weren’t quite so random after all.  This is a time for everyone to be very careful, and, yes, perhaps that starts with the president. 

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