Improving cybersecurity in small town governments

LITCHFIELD — Municipal leaders throughout the region gathered on Zoom Thursday, March 14, to learn of cybersecurity solutions in the age of digital threats.

A presentation by Weston Meehan of Executive Business Machines in Trumbull was given to the Northwest Hill Council of Governments (COG) at its March meeting.

Meehan spoke about the training and solutions available to small town governments. On the front line, Town Hall staff can take the first step by becoming educated on how to spot and avoid phishing emails.

Phishing is an online scam designed to trick users into granting access or personal information to criminals.

In Torrington, Mayor Eleanor Carbone said her town fell victim to cyberattacks during the pandemic after an employee clicked an unsafe link.

“We were hacked in 2020,” Carbone said. “I highly encourage everybody to be very serious about what are you doing with regard to protecting yourself and making sure your employees are not clicking the wrong email, because ultimately, that was how we got hacked.”

Torrington responded by creating a team of information technology (IT) professionals to handle cybersecurity in town.

For smaller towns that lack the resources for a dedicated team, Meehan advised leaders begin to offer training courses to municipal employees. This not only improves awareness but can reduce cyberinsurance rates for towns.

He recommended towns use a tool called KnowBe4 to gather data on points of vulnerability.

“KnowBe4 is the industry leader,” said Meehan. “They’re always coming out with phishing campaigns and deceptive emails that can easily be dispersed.”

KnowBe4 uses fake phishing emails to identify which employees are in need of more training. Susceptible users can then be offered additional training.

COG Executive Director Rob Phillips added that one town fell victim to phishing scams and is now ineligible for cyberinsurance. Instead, it must fund an IT team to head up digital security.

COG senior regional planner Jean Speck advised towns update municipal websites to .gov domains instead of .org. Government domains offer increased security and have recently become free for municipal web pages.

“Of [COG’s] 21 towns, only 23% actually have a .gov domain name. Most have .org, a couple have .us, which doesn’t meet the same security protection level as a .gov. So, we’d like to offer a walk-through,” Speck said.

Speck asked municipal leaders looking to increase cybersecurity in their towns to reach out to her for next steps.

Speck noted that in 2021, Connecticut was home to 77 municipal cyberattacks and more than 80 educational institution cyberattacks. The result was “millions and millions of dollars” lost.

“It’s a life-changing event for any town,” Speck said.

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