An IT contractor doing maintenance on the Wright City government computer network in September discovered that someone had been trying to hack in, City Clerk Karen Girondo said.

Computers at the government building on Second Street North are linked together through a server that houses information and programs city employees use on a daily basis.

The hacking attempt was discovered Sept. 6 after the city replaced a broken internet modem, Girondo said.

“Luckily all the firewalls and protections stopped them. They couldn’t get in,” she said.

Ken Williams of PC Partners maintains Wright City’s computer network and cybersecurity. He said the hacking attempt originated from a location in Vietnam.

“They were trying to enter multiple user names, trying to get access to the server,” Williams explained. “They didn’t get in . . . I changed some things around to make it more difficult.”

Rather than a targeted attack against Wright City, Williams said it looked like an automated computer program trying to hack into any network it could. Signs of those sorts of blanket hacking attempts can be found on many computer networks, he said.

Williams explained that if a hacker can gain access to a computer network, they can load software onto it to take control of the network or use it for various purposes, such as sending information or getting around spam filters.

Businesses and government offices can even be hit by a malicious form of hacking called “ransomware,” which is a type of invasive program that completely locks out access to a computer network until the owner pays a ransom.

To protect against that kind of threat, Wright City government backs up its important data to an external system on a daily basis. That way it can quickly reset its computer network in the case of a cyberattack without losing important information.

Williams said there’s no such thing as too many backups. He advised that government and business offices need to employ an IT person who cares about keeping them safe.

Even people at home need to take steps to protect their home network, Williams said. Anyone who uses a wireless router in their home could be exposing the information on their home computers if they don’t take the proper security steps.

“No matter who you are, you need to protect yourself, because the internet is a dangerous place,” Williams said.

Stopping cyber threats

Incidents with malicious computer viruses and targeted cyberattacks have become prevalent in recent years.

The city of Washington was hit by a ransomware attack Aug. 1 that cost the city more than $416,000 to recover from and make subsequent upgrades.

Dr. Maurice Dawson, a cybersecurity expert who teaches at University of Missouri-St. Louis, said local governments might not understand the value of the information stored in their systems.

“There is a wealth of data to be found on the systems of local governments. This could include Social Security numbers through registered voters, who would also provide information regarding their home,” he said. “That information would be exact location, taxes paid, other members of a household and additional personal information.”

Hackers could also try to get information that would allow them to access bank accounts, and the threat could come from a wide variety of sources, Dawson added.

He said local governments need to be aware of what type of data needs to be protected and have a process in place for cyber risk management. Network administrators should be continually updating to the most recent version of software as new vulnerabilities are discovered.

If they can, government offices should purchase network equipment with features to prevent tampering, he said.

The internal challenge that many governments face is creating a culture of security among their employees, Dawson said. Everyone needs to be aware of how their actions can impact the security of an entire network, he said.

“In a world of hyper-connected systems, having someone just (access) your network through an unsecured device will add an Achilles, heel that will become a point of failure in the system,” Dawson said.

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