One can agree or disagree with Gov. John Bel Edwards on many things, but here’s one prognostication to Louisiana’s municipal officials that is just about money in the bank: It’s not a question of if, but when, a cyberattack cripples computer networks vital to government and the public it serves.
The governor’s warning was delivered last week to the Louisiana Municipal Association, mayors and council members from across the state.
Many of them struggle with tight budgets and, particularly in rural areas, crippling shortfalls caused by declining populations and resulting lower tax collections.
The governor’s administration has done the right things in response to the threat that is a danger to businesses as well as governments everywhere. But the costs of defense against cyberattacks is substantial.
Nevertheless, the governor said, the costs of cybercrime attacks really hurt.
“If you think this is something that is easily overcome, go talk to one of the eight or 10 school systems that have been hit since last July,” Edwards said. “Go talk to the city of New Orleans. Go talk to various sheriff departments, or the convention center. They actually hit the state of Louisiana on the Monday after the election in November. So this is going to happen. I’m asking you all to do what you can to be prepared for it.”
He is surely correct to focus on these issues. A ransom demand can come at any time, with a virus having locked up databases unless the agency pays.
As the governor also correctly observed, paying up is not a good idea. For private-sector victims, perhaps it happens, but an agency that uses tax dollars to buy off a cyberattack would surely pay not only a financial but a political price.
What is the answer? There is no single solution, but state government collaborates with major universities to protect against attacks. The governor urged local officials to consider cybersecurity insurance.
If the proper response to a ransomware attack might be different between a public entity or private business, every institution is in the same boat when it comes to finding and hiring well-qualified information technology staff.
Obviously, training is a must. In Baton Rouge, a $1.5 million cybersecurity training and operations center was announced last year inside downtown’s Water Campus complex. The Louisiana National Guard is among the participants in that project.
But legislators, who ultimately control the state budget, must also be aware that paying competitively to keep IT staff is essential to future operations.
And given the problems facing many smaller towns and cities across Louisiana, the state must be a resource for them: Those officials will be looking for help when their computers freeze.