County recovering from computer attack
SCHUYLER COUNTY--Schuyler County's computer system is gradually recovering from an Aug. 29 malware attack that caused some county employees' screens to go blank for days.
The incident triggered responses from the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Rochester and Buffalo as well as the state division of cyber security, and it prompted the county legislature to hire a private cyber security law firm with expertise in computer attacks, data breaches and ransomware.
"It's going to be weeks before we're fully recovered from this," Tim O'Hearn, the county administrator, told county legislators Monday. "It's a mammoth task. As of Friday we had restored 90 percent of access to the system."
O'Hearn said no county department was ever shut down, and public safety was never at risk. But "enhanced features" of its 911 dispatch system, such as mapping, were affected and the county board of elections had to scramble to keep Tuesday's primary election on track.
"We have no indication of data breaches within the system, be it staff, residents or clients," O'Hearn added. "Forensic analysis is ongoing. We are anticipating a conclusive report within the week."
The legislators voted unanimously Monday to hire Mullen Coughlin LLC, a Wayne, Pennsylvania, law firm that specializes in services to clients who have experienced hacking attacks. They will provide Schuyler "legal services related to the investigation, legal advice and other assistance" at hourly rates of $375 for partners and $295 for associates.
It was unclear why hackers targeted Schuyler County. Although O'Hearn told WENY-TV it was a "malware attempt to monetize the system," Schuyler would seem an odd target for an ransomware attack, given its small population and modest wealth.
Although O'Hearn provided a public overview of the county's response to the incident at the legislature meeting Monday night, legislators also went into executive session to discuss it in further detail. Dennis Fagan, chairman of the legislature, declined to elaborate on those details, pending the results of the investigative report.
On the day of the hack, one Schuyler County employee, who asked not to be identified, said she experienced unusual "pop-up" notifications on her county computer. By the following day, her screen was blank, a condition that continued for days.
O'Hearn said the recovery effort has been led by officials at the Board of Cooperative Educational Services, or BOCES, which maintains backup files of the Schuyler computer system. He said as many as 15 BOCES employees have been working on the restoration task.
The county board of elections suffered disruptions but did not need to postpone Tuesday's primary elections for a county clerk and the town of Tyrone.
The malware attack on Schuyler is one of the first -- if not the first -- full-scale assault on a government computer system in New York state, which is one reason the state's cyber security division has taken such a deep interest.
In April, the Erie County Medical Center, a 550-bed hospital in Buffalo, was hit by a computer virus that prompted the hospital to shut down its email and electronic health record systems and its website. The FBI investigated the case.
On Sept. 7, Equifax disclosed that a data breach had compromised personal data of 143 million Americans, including 8 million New Yorkers. Hackers accessed names, Social Security numbers, addresses and driver's license numbers. The Atlanta-based credit reporting agency had discovered the breach July 29 but waited more than five weeks to make it public.
The breach took place from May through July, according to an alert issued Sept. 8 by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
Peter Mantius is a Watkins Glen journalist who publishes a blog at https://waterfrontonline.blog.