When the Louisiana governor’s race ended over the weekend, voters were left with the feeling that mudwrestling season was over. But a vast ransomware attack on state government intruded on Gov. John Bel Edwards’ victory on Monday.
Rarely was there in sharper relief the gap between political stumping and the realities of governing.
The campaign was about abstractions, scoring points on the opposition, who was closest to the president. It told us little about government problems.
Suddenly, after the election, computers were shut down across a wide range of state agencies.
Edwards said Monday that the Ryuk virus that has plagued government computer systems across the country was detected early and the state Office of Technology Services shut down computer systems to avoid infecting internet servers.
If that sounds like it would avert a larger crisis, that seems to be true.
When a business or government agency is infected, typically through a phishing email, the pirates of the internet can demand a ransom to release data or threaten to delete it entirely if not paid.
Whether in the public or private sector, locking up data means essentially shutting down.
It is not unusual to see news reports of businesses or agencies paying substantial sums to internet pirates. Louisiana’s response was aggressive, as the Division of Administration said, to avoid paying the ransom that is the goal of the hackers.
But in everything from the renewal of driver’s licenses or common business operations like reports and inspections to state agencies, the chaos was still substantial.
Nor is it the first time that Louisiana governments have faced this threat. Several school systems in north Louisiana were the targets of ransomware in July; an emergency plan was instituted by state government to allow agencies to work together and gain access to expertise from universities and others.
Now, the state’s agencies have to untangle not only what happened but communicate with the different offices and rank-and-file state workers about how to get back on track for citizens’ services.
This event is a reminder that our lives are entwined with government services. And those are largely computerized.
A common saying is that government should be run like a business. However, a business that can afford to pay a ransom might very well do so, avoiding higher costs from the disruption of commerce. A government agency would face much criticism because such expenses are public.
Perhaps it is a bit of a paradox, but the answer to cybersecurity threats is more computerization, not less. Louisiana has many agencies dealing with old computer systems because investment in up-to-date computers and servers is not the most politically popular use of limited dollars in the budget.
With an alert response and much hard work by state employees, this crisis can be dealt with and services resumed. But for the longer term, a more modern and effective — and hopefully more consumer-friendly — computer architecture is part of the solution.
Somehow, that sort of large-scale investment escaped the attention of most candidates in the last elections. It’s not popular, maybe, but shutting down state offices isn’t exactly a happy event, either.