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Tewksbury Hosts Municipal Cybersecurity Summit

The week of Halloween, 50 attendees from more than a dozen local towns and municipal organizations gathered at the Tewksbury Public Library to learn about a topic that strikes fear into many: cybersecurity.

Tewksbury Select Board clerk and cyber security professional James F. Mackey put the event together. The program featured an overview of the problem and information on resources available to help municipalities protect their assets and citizens.

“I see this as just a first step on the long road to tackling the problem of municipal cyber security,” said Mackey. “This event was designed to introduce municipal senior management to some of the core concepts of cybersecurity. While they are not expected to be subject matter experts, they do need to be able to meet their technical staff half way.”

The event was sponsored by Leicester Cyber Solutions and Lowell 5 Bank. Mackey also thanked the Tewksbury Public Library for hosting and the many volunteers and staff who made the event possible. 

Sen. Barry Finegold opened the event with a keynote. 

“All told, Massachusetts lost around $100 million from reported cybercrimes in 2020 alone,” said Finegold. “Our elderly population was most impacted.”

He called out work being done by the MassCyberCenter and Executive Office of Technology Services and Security and said priorities for his office include thinking strategically about how to tap into federal funding opportunities while also forging relationships with Massachusetts’ higher education institutions, technology companies and cybersecurity businesses. 

A key takeaway for the leaders in attendance were the resources available to cities and towns. 

Mike Ste Marie, Election Security Partnership (ESP) program manager for the Massachusetts Office of the Secretary of State, discussed assistance available from the agency for local officials, while Andrew Warby of the National Guard Cyber Support team outlined programs offered by the state.

Ste Marie advises cities and towns to work together and reach out for assistance, because election security issues in any city or town affect the entire Commonwealth.

“The stronger your network is, the stronger our network is,” he said.

Ste Marie stressed that securing elections is a partnership between IT teams and town clerks.

One point stressed by all speakers is the prevalence of ransomware, where a criminal gains access to a system, encrypts data and demands payment to provide the decryption key. Ransomware is a huge and growing problem — Finegold said that in 2019 and 2020, nearly half of all ransomware attacks targeted municipalities, according to research from Barracuda Networks. Other prime targets are small businesses and healthcare facilities.

While the event focused on protecting municipal assets, such as email servers, citizen records and voting systems, social media accounts and public-facing websites, the overall structure of the recommended NIST risk assessment framework offers some takeaways from the event for any Tewksbury resident who uses the Internet. 

NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, is a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce. 

Mackey advised attendees to make a worksheet listing assets and assigning values, from low to high. Then, for each asset, document the impact of loss or damage, identify the likelihood of loss or damage and prioritize protective activities and spending accordingly.

Individuals can do a similar exercise. Determine what files would be painful to lose, then figure out how to store backups in a safe spot, such as a cloud service or an external hard drive that’s not connected to the Internet.

Here are more common sense steps from Mackey to help residents stay safe online.

Lorna is a 25-year resident of Tewksbury who has written for organizations ranging from the DIA to InformationWeek to a free weekly in New London that sent her to interview the pastry chef at Foxwoods.

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