they received the greatest value from
interacting face-to-face. By being in the
same room, people could quickly shift
from conversation to conversation when
a critical phrase was heard, with a very
low barrier to asking someone a question or suggesting an idea.
Although the crit-sit seems heavyweight and wasteful, we have no other
approaches that can replicate the collaborative interaction of a bunch of
people stuck in a room searching for a
solution to a common problem. It would
be a revolutionary advance for system
administration if a tool were developed
that could permit the same engagement
in remote collaborators as we saw in the
We next describe the sorts of collaborations we observed among security administrators at a U.S. university.
the “ettercap” incident
When we first met the security administration team for a computer center at
a large university, 5 they seemed somewhat paranoid, making such statements as, “I’ll never type my password
on a Windows box, because I can’t really
tell if it’s secure.” After watching them
for two weeks, we realized they had
good reason to be cautious. IT systems,
as a rule, have no volition and don’t care
how they’re configured or whether you
apply a patch to them. Security administrators face human antagonists, however, who have been known to get angry
when locked out of a system and work
extra hard to find new vulnerabilities
and do damage to the data of those who
locked them out.
The work of these security administrators was centered around monitoring. New attacks came every week or two.
Viruses, worms, and malicious intrusions could happen anytime. They had
a battery of automatic monitoring software looking for traces of attacks in system logs and network traffic. Automated
intrusion-detection systems needed to
err on the side of caution, with the sysadmins making the final decision as to
whether suspicious activity was really an
attack. These sysadmins relied on communications tools to share information
and to help them maintain awareness of
what was going on in their center, across
their campus, and around the world.
The security administration team
shared adjacent offices, so back-and-
one of our
cost of it
Part of this can
the fact that
faster and cheaper
every year, and
people do not.
forth chatter about system activity was
common. They joked about taking down
the wall to make one big workspace.
They also used a universitywide MOO
(multiuser domain, object oriented), a
textual virtual environment where all the
system administrators would hang out,
with different “rooms” for different topics. The start of an incident would result
in high levels of activity in the security
room of the MOO, as security admins
from different parts of campus would
compare what was happening on their
own systems. On a day-to-day basis, the
MOO might hold conversations on the
latest exploits discovered or theories
as to how a virus might be getting into
the network. The admins described the
MOO’s persistence features as really
helpful in allowing them to catch up on
everything that was going on when they
came back after being away, even for a
day. They also used a “whisper” feature
of the MOO for point-to-point communication (like traditional IM).
An example of MOO use for quick interchange of security status came when
we observed a meeting that focused on
hacker tools. The security administrators discussed a package called “
ettercap.” Being unfamiliar with this tool,
one of us began searching the Web for
information about it using the wireless
network. A few minutes later, one of the
administrators in the room informed us
that a security administrator working
remotely had detected this traffic and
asked about it on the MOO:
Remote: Any idea who was looking for
ettercap? The DHCP logs say [observer’s
machine name] is a NetBIOS name.
Nothing in email logs (like POP from
that IP address).
Remote: Seemed more like research.
Remote: The SMTP port is open on that
host, but it doesn’t respond as SMTP.
That could be a hacker defender port.
Local: We were showing how [hacker]
downloaded ettercap. One of the visitors
started searching for it.
Remote: Ah, OK. Thanks.
In the space of only a few minutes,
the sysadmin had detected Web searches for the dangerous ettercap package,
identified the name of the machine in
question, checked the logs for other
activity by that machine, and probed
the ports on the machine. He could see