Computer woes

It has fallen out of the headlines, but the City of Atlanta, Georgia is still grappling with the computer hack that installed ransomware on many of the city’s essential computers. Officials have not yet revealed whether or not they paid the ransom, but essential city services, such as utility billing are slowly coming back on line. Over a week after the initial attack by ransomware known as SamSam, the city’s website and broader computer system is still not functioning as designed. Some employees remain locked out of their computers and unable to do their jobs.

Unfortunately, it is an increasingly common story. Cyberattacks are seemingly random and continue to cause worry among all computer users. Networks are especially vulnerable as the malware spreads quickly from machine to machine within the system.

As computer experts struggle to create effective defenses against such attacks, equally brilliant minds are devising new attacks and hacks that result in a kind of constant escalation of attacks and defenses. In the midst of all of this, we all are left with vulnerabilities and with insufficient knowledge to protect ourselves from attacks.

Meanwhile, we have all become more dependent upon our machines. At our church, we need networked computers to adjust the thermostats and control the heat in our building. We need networked computers to produce our newsletter and worship bulletins. Our organ console is powered by a sophisticated computer, though it is not at present networked and has no access to the internet, rendering it less vulnerable to cyber attack.

This year we have spend a significant amount of money, equivalent to the cost of purchasing a new workstation, to increase our online security and beef up our wireless network. In addition we have personal computer anti-virus and protection software installed on all of our computers.

There is another issue with all of this sophisticated equipment and software. The more complex our system becomes the less we are capable of managing it ourselves.

About 30 years ago that a pastor of this congregation assembled a computer from a kit. He learned some basic programming language and set it up to do some basic database management. It was little more than an address book, but it was the start of computer record keeping in the church. Prior to that the essential records of the church were kept in ledgers in a fireproof file cabinet. The entire security plan consisted of locked doors and the heavy concrete-lined file cabinet.

Less than 25 years ago, I helped the church establish a rudimentary network, allowing our computers to communicate with one another and our staff to share documents without having to manually transport floppy disks from one machine to another. Not long afterward, we began to connect to the Internet. Email systems were established. A web page for the church was built. Up to that point, the pastor was the systems manager for the institution and made decisions regarding purchase of hardware and knew the basics of troubleshooting the system. As this was happening, I found that i was spending more and more of my time keeping the system operating.

At some point, we discovered that we needed more professional help to keep our system operating properly. We hired a tech company to come in, evaluate our network and provide the hardware, software and support needed to get it functioning properly. This resulted in the purchase of an online backup system replacing a system of keeping backup drives in the fireproof file cabinet. We basically lost control of our network at this point. We no longer have anyone who works directly for the church who understands the network or knows more than some basic techniques for correcting mistakes. A service call from our computer company is fairly expensive, and we are completely dependent upon them for certain repairs.

Along with the complexity of the network came more capability. We migrated our database to the cloud and have integrated software that tracks our financial affairs as well as our membership and a lot of other items. We have a system for online donations and members can set up recurring payments through credit card, checking or savings accounts. We added the computer controls to our building’s heating and air handling systems. We stopped using desktop printers and our copy machine became our primary printer.

Yesterday a technician came by for a planned upgrade to our system. We had set it up for him to come during the noon hour to minimize disruption. At 4 pm he was still working. One of our work stations had been tied up for 5 hours and this is newsletter week. A lot of valuable work time was lost because the technician was struggling to get the system to work properly. We were basically restored to the same functionality that we had had before the work began by 4 pm. We had some of the enhanced capabilities that the upgrade was supposed to produce by 9 pm. It is pretty clear that the upgrade will cost more than anticipated. And I spend the afternoon focused on the computers not on my regular tasks.

Moreover, I really don’t know or understand what the technician has done. I have to trust his capabilities and hope that what he has done is something that another technician in the future will be able to continue to service.

And yes we have a couple of new usernames and passwords to add to the system. There are always more passwords that need to be known. This upgrade added a few new ip addresses, so it took a while for the computers to find the other components of the network.

By 9 pm I could check the heating controls and make adjustments from my home computer. At this point only the technician and I know how to do this. I’ll have to train volunteers and staff to be able to take advantage of this upgrade.

I have great sympathy for the managers and employees of the city of Atlanta. We are at once dependent and vulnerable. And there is no end in sight.

And they still don’t teach computer network administration in theological seminary. It isn’t our natural skill or our training s pastors. Most of us would prefer to be doing other things.

Or perhaps it is just the simple adage: “The good old days might not have been so good, but back then I wasn’t so old.”

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!