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Virgin Islands Government Needs More Cybersecurity Investment

Virgin Islands CIO Rupert Ross has told legislators the time is now for the U.S. territory to invest more in cybersecurity staff and resources. Multiple territory departments have been hacked in recent years.

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(TNS) — The Virgin Islands government needs to invest more resources in cybersecurity to brunt an ongoing threat to computer systems vulnerable to ongoing attacks, according to testimony this week in the Senate's Committee on Housing, Transportation, and Telecommunications.

Bureau of Information Technology Director and Chief Information Officer Rupert Ross said the department has 19 employees territorywide, and they need to "add more capacity as it relates to cybersecurity, as it relates to network operations as well."

BIT has identified "very vast vulnerabilities" because technology professionals don't have automatic access to all of the various systems being used by different government departments, and they need to "depend on multiple entities to enable controls."

More staff and resources would be "an investment in IT, it's an investment in cybersecurity. I think it's about time," Ross said.

"Cyber attacks can impact our everyday lives in ways that go beyond financial cost. We must take the necessary steps to protect ourselves from cyber criminals," said committee Chairman Sen. Marvin Blyden.

Sen. Dwayne DeGraff said people look at BIT as "nonfunctional," but they're hampered by the lack of consistency and cooperation between the various government departments' computer systems. "You need to toot your own horn and beat your chest," DeGraff said.

Sen. Novelle Francis Jr. asked how many cyber attacks have been recorded.

"We track about five million pieces of information a day," using artificial intelligence software to identify issues of concern, Ross said. "On a regular basis, we get about maybe 12 alerts a week."

Francis said the frequency of those attacks highlights the need to strengthen cybersecurity.

Government departments have been hit by several damaging attacks that seriously affected the functionality of networks and databases.

Lt. Gov. Tregenza Roach said in March that his office "is investigating a possible breach in its computer systems that has affected service delivery by its Recorder of Deeds and Cadastral Divisions."

Roach said that "our team is actively working on a resolution of this issue. Although the divisions are faced with this challenge, some manual fixes have been put in place to provide services to the public in the interim. As a result, there will be delays experienced when any service is requested from these two divisions."

The V.I. Port Authority said a cyber attack occurred on its network on Jan. 29, which was "reported to local and federal law enforcement."

The V.I. Water and Power Authority fell prey to an email scam in 2018 that resulted in two wire transfers totaling $2.17 million to accounts controlled by the hackers and subsequently transferred to accounts in China and elsewhere, according to court documents.

WAPA sued its insurance company for failing to cover the claim, and entered a settlement agreement, the terms of which have not yet been finalized or made public.

The V.I. Police Department suffered ransomware attacks in April and June 2019. The attacks affected the department's ability to access historical records, according to testimony in U.S. District Court regarding the department's compliance with a federal consent decree.

During the committee hearing, the V.I. Education Department's Director of Planning Research and Evaluation James Richardson updated senators on the status of VIVIS, the Virgin Islands Virtual Information System.

The system was intended to unify government databases to provide useful information for planning and policy decisions in the education system, but Richardson said the system lacks adequate funding, and requires a total of $721,000 to effectively operate.

V.I. Housing Finance Authority Executive Director Daryl Griffith updated lawmakers on the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, funded by $39 million in federal grants.

The deadline for expenditures for the first award is Sept. 20, 2022, and Sept. 30, 2025, is for the second. Thus far, there are over 400 applicants, of which 150 have been reviewed and 95% qualify.

But Griffith said the program is facing significant challenges, including lack of staff to effectively operate.

Blyden urged residents experiencing rental and utility hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic to contact VIHFA or one of their intake centers to apply for assistance so that the funds are not returned to the Department of Treasury.

Regarding first-time homeownership financing opportunities, Griffith said VIHFA offers loans such as the Homestead Loan, the Veteran Loan Program and the Moderate-Income Loan that assists with down payments and/or closing costs of vacant land and single-family homes.

First Bank Vice President and USVI Market Manager Dina Perry said they have expanded financial options to potential buyers who are interested in multi-family homes, end-loans, and affordable homes.

Perry said it can take from 90 to 120 days to close on a home due to limited appraisers and surveyors.

DeGraff said it has typically taken 30 days to complete closing on a home, and the delay is discouraging.

Blyden said many prospective homeowners in the territory are "land rich and cash poor," and urged the reconsideration of residential construction loans.

©2021 The Virgin Islands Daily News, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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