IT SEEMS THAT A WEEK (or is it a day) doesn’t go by without a report of a computer system being hacked. Sometimes the system is vandalized. Sometimes data is stolen. Often, the systems are frozen and held hostage. Theft of LifeLabs patients’ personal data in late 2019 is the most high profile. Every day, there seems to be a new report of a computer system that has been compromised.
Municipal governments, that is cities, towns, and villages, are as vulnerable as the rest of us.
In late December 2019, the town of Summerland, B.C., had their system hacked. The front page of their utility page was modified. No payments were redirected, but the hack showed system vulnerabilities. The changes were discovered and the site has since been restored.
In October 2019, the City of Port Moody police department and library systems were hit with malware.
In March 2018 the City of Cranbrook was hit with a ransomware attack. They paid $120,000 to the hackers to unlock their system, although the payment was not made public until January 2019.
In 2018, a number of local governments in Ontario were victims of ransomware. Computer systems were locked and payments demanded.
Citizens’ data, and payment information that local governments hold are vulnerable.
It’s bad enough that there are malicious people who are trying to break into computer systems. It’s bad enough that they will destroy systems, freeze systems, and blackmail organizations.
But what’s worse, in the case of B.C. municipalities, is that they are all doing their own thing. There are more than 160 municipalities in B.C. All but 20 are smaller than 50,000 in population. That’s 160 with varying levels of computer expertise, all doing their own thing.
I once visited a small B.C. municipality of about 2,000 population that was in complete panic. Their computer system had crashed. They were trying to restore their backup, but had realized that they hadn’t made the backup tapes correctly. In the end, the system was restored, but not before a few lost heartbeats.
In the Thompson Nicola Regional District (TNRD), there is only one large municipality. Kamloops has a population of 87,000. The next largest is Merritt at 7,000. The rest of the towns and villages, like Chase, Clearwater, and Lytton, are well under that in size.
It is difficult for small municipalities to provide all the services themselves. That is why the regional district, the TNRD, provides our region’s library services. It also provides regional planning services, solid waste services, and sewage services to the smaller communities in the TNRD.
It makes sense that smaller municipalities use the TNRD’s services. It would be too expensive and too difficult for each small village and town to have their own planning department or landfill.
Which is why the small towns and villages in the TNRD should be using the TNRD’s computer systems (IT) department as well. Collectively, the TNRD has the resources and expertise to provide a stronger, safer, and more robust computer system.
But the small villages and towns in the TNRD all just do their own thing.
Some have a person assigned part time. Some contract out the IT Services to a private company. Some have robust computer security systems and backup plans. But most likely have simply avoided disaster so far.
It is a given that computer systems will be attacked. Recently, I talked to a computer administrator of a federal government agency who said that their systems are attacked on an ongoing basis. They spend considerable resources thwarting attacks.
We know that computer systems of local governments are attacked, too. Which means that their systems need to be as strong as possible. Which means that it is time for the towns and villages in the TNRD to centralize their systems, and shore up their defenses.
Like libraries, planning and solid waste, it’s time that the computer services of the TNRD be centralized. Looking across the province, it’s time the smaller municipalities across B.C. regionalize their computer systems as well. It’s the citizens’ data, and we deserve stronger systems.
Nancy Bepple is a former City councillor of Kamloops with a strong interest in community building projects.