Cyberthreats pose real danger, emergency management says

La Crosse County emergency management coordinator says cyberattacks threaten local government

La Crosse County emergency management coordinator Keith Butler has more experience with red lights and sirens than cyberattacks, but he says they need attention as well.

“We know it’s a very, very dangerous threat,” said Butler.

After attending a state emergency management conference a few weeks ago, Butler said governments are a prime target for hackers.

“They get thousands, if not millions, of hits on their system each year from attackers trying to get in to gather information or compromise systems,” he said.

And these attacks can have real consequences.

“The implications are extreme,” Butler said. “Certainly the release of confidential information. We have thousands of employees. Dates of birth and Social Security numbers are all stored in there, hopefully under lock and key. If someone were to find a way to gather that [they could] engage in what’s called identification theft.”

Mike Williams, an I.T. security officer for La Crosse County, says it’s a constant battle keeping cyberthreats at bay.

“We have folks trying to attack our networks and get into our systems on a daily basis,” he said. “They’re always trying new things from the email that comes from the oil king in Saudi Arabia saying he’s got money to send you, to we’ve had recent ones where somebody will send an email trying to impersonate someone from I.T.”

But according to Williams, the county does have safeguards in place.

“We basically have layers of security,” he said. “It starts at our firewall level and goes from there down to software that we have antivirus, malware protection.”

For Butler, adding cyberthreats to his list of disasters is unfamiliar terrain.

“I know about the bandages and longboards and splints and fire hoses and those kinds of things. Cyber security is a different world,” he said.

But it’s also often new territory for I.T. experts as well.

Williams said the hardest part of his job is “constantly changing, and just trying to keep up with all the new things that the hackers out there are trying to come up with to infiltrate your systems.”