Is Rice County’s data at risk when working remotely? County officials say not if employees follow the rules.
Updating said remote work policy was among discussion topics at Tuesday morning’s Rice County Board of Commissioners’ work session. Other topics included the implementation of open forums, the information technology department and even brief mention of a countywide ban on plastic bags in the future.
First on the agenda, the IT Department gave commissioners an update on the departmental operations, responsibilities and constraints. County IT Manager Allan Klug said his department’s primary concern is cybersecurity, citing a “greatly increased” number of “advanced persistent threats.”
“’Advanced persistent threats’ is security-tech talk for governments, for very well-funded criminal agencies, for unethical businesses that rely on computer crime,” he said. “That is way, way up. That has become one of the main methods for governments to interfere with their geopolitical opponents. And even at the local-government level, especially as you get into raising funds.”
Klug went on to say election processes have also become a major concern to many members of the public in recent years, so remaining vigilant is a priority for the department.
Another thing the department watches for is something he called “hacktivism,” which is when ideologically motivated groups target government and other organizations’ data for a cause.
In a follow-up phone call, Klug confirmed these are broad trends guiding the department’s priorities. He said they have been “no specific instances” of any group or person trying to attack Rice County’s cyber network.
In tandem with these skyrocketing threats, security methods and software are upgraded regularly. He said that, while it can make things more inconvenient for the average user and increase service requests, the upgrades are necessary for trust and safety. The department sees about 23 service request tickets per day.
Rice County Deputy Administrator Adam Johnson presented a revised remote-work policy for county employees. The new policy would expand on some previous guidelines, as well as implement several new guidelines.
The policy draft specifies that working remotely is a privilege, not a right, and is subject to termination at any time. It also outlines the internet connection requirements, that the employee must have been employed for at least a year, that not every position can work remotely and that employees should be able to return quickly if necessary.
Again, cybersecurity was among the main considerations when developing the first draft of the new policy. Johnson said he worked directly with Klug in developing the policy.
Commissioner Gerry Hoisington asked about this aspect of remote work, wondering if the county’s sensitive data could be breached if someone was working on a home or public Wi-Fi network.
“We’re actually in a very good situation on that one because of our virtual-desktop environment,” Klug answered. “… So the data that the county works with is actually living on our servers and being remotely accessed without storing on the local device.”
He added that, while someone could theoretically download files onto their devices using the remote-access software, they would be violating countywide policy by doing so, “which means that there shouldn’t be anything on a laptop.” County Attorney Brian Mortenson asked that this be included in the policy for liability purposes.
Klug also said virtual assistants, like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, listening to workers could risk a data breach. Many other requirements and guidelines are included in the 10-page draft.
Commissioner Jeff Docken brought forward his concerns about remote work, but acknowledged that all sectors are moving toward allowing remote work. He said he initially worried about less work getting done at home, but said a test run by former Social Services Director Mark Shaw resulted in more work getting done, not less.
“I know there’s a lot of challenges, but I know that there’s a lot of positive things that can come out it,” Docken said.
Commissioners Jim Purfeerst and Steve Underdahl said they may sound critical or negative, but they support the policy and want to “get it right.” In the end, no official decisions were made, but the commissioners seems to be in support of the policy.
Soil and bags
Before the work session was adjourned, Commissioner Galen Malecha briefly mentioned he and other commissioners want to have a work session to discuss “an education campaign about what people put in the landfill in light of the fire” at the facility.
“I think it’s made some of us think a little bit more,” he said. “We’ve had some thoughts in the past but, you know, we talked about a possible plastic-bag ban. We cannot do that, according to Minnesota State Statute 471.(9)998 Subdivision 2, that the legislatures stuck in years ago when Minneapolis was trying to do the plastic ban. But that doesn’t prevent us from doing a bag fee.”
He also suggested the county and regional landfill authorities lobby for the statute to be removed.
“I support that,” Purfeerst responded. “Along with that, I would like to see a baseline testing of the soils and the wells in a core area surrounding that landfill so, if something happens in the future, we’ve got something to come back to.”
Malecha agreed with Purfeerst’s suggestion.
“A lot of things we want to talk about, moving forward with the landfill,” Malecha said. “So there’s a lot things of that we can do.”