Sheriffs warn of hackers after upstate attack

ALBANY — In a recent incident that officials say illustrates the vulnerability of local government computer networks, the communications system of an upstate New York police agency was disrupted by a hacking attack.

The Schuyler County Sheriff's Department, headquartered in Watkins Glen, had to get support from surrounding counties after the hacking temporarily crippled its 911 emergency system and ability to dispatch deputies to calls, said Peter Kehoe, director of the New York State Sheriffs' Association.

Kehoe said such incidents “are a very big concern for us," particularly since the disruption of a communications systems could severely impair a law enforcement agency's ability to protect the public during a crisis.

The need for enhanced cyber security measures to counter attempts to breach networks often containing highly confidential and personal information stored on government computers has prompted the New York State Association of Counties to arrange a workshop on the issue at an annual conference it will hold in Syracuse from Sept. 13 through 15.

Officials say hacking attempts appear to be on the rise, with those targeting government networks often based in Russia, China or North Korea.

A memo circulated by Schuyler County Sheriff William Yessman Jr. last week described the hacking episode there as a "direct attack from a foreign country on our system," coming from a computer that "kept trying various passwords until it accessed our system."

The attack on the sheriff's agency came within a week of the release of an Aug. 24 report that found that government computer networks are often more vulnerable to attacks than the systems of fast-food chains. That report, by SecurityScoreboard, a cyber security consultant, was based on an analysis of more than 500 federal, state and local government agencies.

"Once a hacker is inside the organization's network, digital assets can be compromised or stolen outright, throwing operations into chaos," the report warned.

Even a small vulnerability can lead to large problems for government networks, experts said.

By Joe Mahoney CNHI State Reporter Sep 8, 2017 Updated Sep 9, 2017