Our Opinion: Cybersecurity must be government priority

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The Internet has transformed society in many ways, some good (ready access to information) and some bad (the spread at light speed of misinformation). Cyberattacks are a major detriment, and their threat grows in proportion to the added ways in which we are digitally connected.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has introduced a modest initiative to help communities address this issue while pushing for funding for a more ambitious program. On a separate front, Massachusetts' congressional delegation has called for a crackdown on hacking that can paralyze government at the state and local levels.

Speaking Thursday at the Massachusetts Cybersecurity Forum, the governor announced that the state will host a series of workshops to help the state's 351 communities develop or improve their cybersecurity plans and learn ways in which they can collaborate in these efforts. The workshops to be conducted by the MassCyberCenter at the Mass/Tech Collaborative will be backed by a $300,000 grant.

The governor observed that while most people probably think of their smartphones and laptops when considering cyberattacks, the increased digitizing of what were formerly mechanical activities has opened new possibilities for hackers. The digitizing of home security systems as well as heating and cooling systems means that residences are now vulnerable to cyberattacks. Gov. Baker maintained that government must join the private sector in exploring ways to prevent hackers from taking advantage of this digital expansion.

In April, the administration filed a $1.15 billion IT bond bill authorizing funds for cybersecurity projects designed to protect public safety equipment and information technology, among other areas. In a hearing on the bill last month, Curtis Wood, the head of the new Cabinet-level Executive Office of Technology Services and Security, said the state's computer network receives more than 500 million probes daily from foreign soil exploring vulnerabilities within the network. The governor Thursday urged the Legislature to pass the bond bill, which is currently in committee, before its Thanksgiving recess. We would urge lawmakers to at least hold open committee hearings on the bond bill before the recess so the press and public can be informed on specifics of the bill and perhaps offer ways of improving it.

In a letter released on Friday, the state's congressional delegation asked the Department of Homeland Security to more aggressively address the problem of ransomware, a form of software that hackers can employ to cripple state and local agencies for days or weeks by locking their computer systems and demanding payment to release them. Leominister paid $10,000 in ransom to unlock its system recently and Athol, which refused to pay a ransom, lost valuable police department records. The letter pointed out that the state Committee for Public Counsel Services lost files when it refused to pay a ransom, and while it successfully rebuilt them from backup the lengthy process caused the postponement of some legal matters and delays in payments to lawyers.

Also speaking at Thursday's forum, Senate President Karen Spilka warned that the state is "under siege" from hackers. The fight against this cyberattack siege will require a concerted team effort by the private sector and government at the federal, state and local levels to have a chance at success.

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