The county has been a target of persistent cybersecurity threats, but finding the money to close gaps has been a problem. So far, none of the IT department’s requests for funding have been approved.
(TNS) — Winnebago County has been struck 224 times since Nov. 28 by computer malware that could disrupt and even cripple public safety and other services provided to thousands of taxpayers and residents, but a potentially bigger threat looms: A budget crunch that has slowed the pace of upgrades to the county's network.
In 72 of those 224 instances, firewall technology employed by the county detected "callback activities," a signature of ransomware. The malicious software, typically spread through infected emails and websites, denies access to network systems or data until the victim pays a ransom to the hacker.
Rockford Public Schools is still rebuilding its IT infrastructure following a September ransomware attack that left employees unable to access school computers, laptops, tablets and anything else connected to district servers or the Internet.
In the U.S. last year, at least 113 municipal and state government agencies, 764 health care providers and 89 universities, colleges and school districts were struck by ransomware, costing an estimated $7.5 billion in damage, according to a December report authored by the software firm Emsisoft.
Winnebago County has been fortunate so far. Employees in Gus Gentner's information technology department have quickly detected, intercepted and neutralized every virtual threat during the last month or so, including an attempted cyberattack that was thwarted at 3:37 a.m. Thursday.
"For us, 224 events in about a month, I'd say that's normal," said Gentner, the county's chief information officer. "We have about 1,200 employees. With that many moving parts and that many people logging on to our network, there's bound to be events. But it's not a question of if there will be a cyber event, it's a question of when."
It's also a budget question.
Baker Tilly, a private firm that the county pays for external auditing and financial consulting services, recently completed a review of the IT department and advised that $10.2 million worth of hardware and software upgrades be completed within the next five years. Ideally, consultants said, the county should spend a bit more than $2 million over the next three years on a "gigabit to desktop" network upgrade so that employees can continue to transmit data seamlessly with no disruption to county services.
Continued investment in cybersecurity also is paramount, Gentner said. Virtually all of the services that Winnebago County provides to its taxpayers and residents are dependent on the county's IT network, which requires routine maintenance, repair and around-the-clock safeguarding, Gentner said.
"What we really need is faster interaction between our employees' desktop computers and our servers," he said. "We have about 1,200 employees. That's a lot computers, a lot of data moving around all the time.
"It's not just data in the form of text," Gentner said. "There's a lot of image data. A sheriff's deputy may be rendering a mug shot that needs to be uploaded and stored on the server. Someone else may be rendering a video that's evidence or an exhibit in a court case. Think about all of the video conferencing in our courtrooms when someone needs to testify from a remote location."
Gentner said he submitted a budget request for the needed IT enhancements to administrators this fiscal year and during the two previous annual budget cycles. None of the upgrades he's asked for has been funded, he said. On Thursday, the County Board rejected a $133,000 budget amendment for data processing supplies and Internet services. Without those network upgrades, deputies and corrections officers cannot effectively use $2.4 million worth of Tasers, body cameras and squad car dash cameras that were recently purchased by the sheriff's department.
County Board member Aaron Booker, R-1, voted in favor of the budget amendment, but the proposal failed to garner enough votes to pass. Booker said he predicts more budget battles until a majority of the board is willing to work with administrators to develop a comprehensive plan to pay for all of the county's capital needs. Booker said that for now, at least, the board doesn't seem to have the will to address the issue.
"I think it's going to take a lawsuit or an election to change things," Booker said. "That's just my personal feeling."
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