By Christine Graf
In November 2018, Washington County was the recipient of one of just 10 grants given out by the state Cybersecurity Grant Program to shore up cybersecurity at county offices.
State Homeland Security and Emergency Services made the funding available to local governments to “enhance and sustain their cybersecurity posture as well as ensure that their information systems are secure and protected from cyber incidents.”
The grant was written by Karen Pratt, who has worked for Washington County for more than 20 years. Before being named the county’s cybersecurity officer approximately one year ago, she served as director of informational technology (IT).
In June, she was one of just three people chosen to receive the state Cybersecurity Champion Award. The award was presented by the Office of Information Technology Services. Pratt and the others were honored for their significant contributions to support and enhance cybersecurity in New York.
According to County Attorney Roger Wickes, the county added the cybersecurity position after being advised to do so by an outside consultant. As a result, they reorganized the entire IT department and created the position of cybersecurity officer. When Pratt accepted the position, they hired a chief information officer to head the IT department.
Washington County is among the first counties in the state to have a full time cybersecurity office on staff, officials said.
“The cybersecurity officer functions somewhat independently of the IT department,” said Wickes. “It’s a separate function from IT because we use that person as what I call the inspector general of the IT department to make sure all of the holes are plugged. She works in very close consultation with our chief information officer. The county made a commitment to fund that position. Before that, there was no one who’s full time job it was to watch the gates so to speak.”
It is Pratt’s job to monitor the county’s computer systems in order to prevent intrusions from hackers. Numerous local and county governments throughout the U.S. have been hacked in recent years. In October, Otsego County was the victim of what was described as a “significant cyberattack.”
A ransomware attack infiltrated the City of Albany’s computer system earlier this year, and Atlanta made national news in 2018 after it fell victim to a ransomware attack.
“A lot of other counties have been attacked,” said Wickes. “Having a cybersecurity officer allows up to up our game and see who’s out there and what is going on. We can see people trying to penetrate our system, we can see emails that are stopped by our firewall, we can see the activity of the various comings and goings of our computer system. We make sure they are legitimate and not a threat to anybody.”
Wickes does not publicly release information related to the county’s cybersecurity protocol or attempts made by hackers to breach their system. But he said the county has already benefited from the addition of a cybersecurity officer.
Wickes said there is an educational component to the job of cybersecurity officer. Pratt spends considerable time educating county employees and residents—especially seniors—on how to protect themselves from cyber threats.
“We want to increase their awareness about issues that are out there,” said Wickes.
The county has applied for the next round of cybersecurity grants offered by the state. They are hoping to receive an additional $50,000 grant which allow them to further bolster their cybersecurity.