Cyber Security Attacks: Is Your County Safe?
It seems like every time we look at the news, there’s a cautionary tale of local governments experiencing cyber security attacks. While I am no expert on cyber security, I do understand the impact an attack can have on county government operations. We rely so heavily on our computers and our connection to a global internet to fulfill our responsibilities that we often forget how a cyber attack could affect our abilities to provide for our constituents. Simply opening an email and clicking a suspicious link or working with a vendor that has been exposed can put the county at risk ultimately costing the county thousands and temporarily shutting down the entire organization. Like us, you may be unable to pay employees, respond to 911 calls, or serve citizens through the county website or in person. Our own experience with ransomware in Oglethorpe County reminded us of a few things we had forgotten and taught us some new lessons.
As a normal part of the budget process, we find ourselves in a position to evaluate and compare the consequences of not funding a long list of particular budget requests. Those consequences will carry varying degrees of validity, likelihood, and severity. Often, our tendency as human beings, is to provide attention to things that are familiar or items that are visible and tangible. Few among us enjoy thinking about cyber security because we don’t fully understand it. Apart from the lonely IT employee waving his hands with a dire plea, the topic might not come up at all. The good news is that there are some basic practices that can reduce the chances of a successful attack.
Start by self- assessing and asking some of these questions:
Do you and your employees know how to recognize a suspicious email?
Do you know how to report a cyber security breach?
Does your insurance cover losses as a result of a cyber security event?
What data do we have that is valuable? (i.e., financial records or personally identifiable data)
How are you protected?
Do you have a replacement plan for your software and hardware?
Do you have a disaster recovery plan? Have you tested it?
If you’re unable to confidently answer these questions, it’s time to get acclimated with the current protocols and safety measures in place to ensure you nor your staff become a breach of security. Partner with your IT staff to regularly send emails and reminders of the best practices for internet safety and how to spot suspicious emails. The most frequent source of breaches is employees. Encourage your commissioners to include regular maintenance of your computer systems in the county budget and to listen to the recommendations provided by your IT team. Does your county have a backup? Make sure that backup is built well and maintained in the case of an emergency.
Ask your trusted technical staff what kind of “blocking and tackling” is needed to stay safe. Likewise, be aware if your technology staff is over-confident that you are safe from any vulnerabilities. No matter how well-defended you think you are, it’s a possibility that you are vulnerable. Fortunately for Oglethorpe, we had knowledgeable IT contractors who were able to get us back up and running within two weeks without having to pay ransom. Although no experience is the same, every county should be prepared and have measures put in place in case of a ransomware attack. Despite the differences among all 159 counties in Georgia, when it comes to the threat of cyber attack, those differences seem to fade. Local governments of all shapes and sizes are being targeted, whether we serve a community of one million or a community of 10,000. We are all susceptible to a cyber security at tack.
Cyber security is, by and large, disaster preparedness and the failure of cyber security is disaster response. Remember, if you don’t have trusted technical staff, there are organizations that are prepared and equipped to act in our interest and in our defense. The Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) is the primary agency to call and get involved if cyber security is breached. Other organizations such as the Georgia Technical Authority (GTA) serve as valuable resources. Understand who is there to help and how they can help.