A COUNCIL IT guru has stressed defences to deal with cyber-attacks in Stockton are “robust” in the face of hundreds of thousands of threats every day.
A ransomware attack has put Redcar and Cleveland Council’s website and internal computer systems out of action for more than a fortnight.
Its plight sparked questions from Stockton councillors on Monday over whether it could deal with similar threats.
Cllr Eileen Johnson said: “A lot of social media on the Redcar and Cleveland situation has been blaming staff – saying it’s some stupid staff member that’s done something wrong.
“My understanding was it was ransomware.
“Our staff are highly trained but I wondered if you could give us some idea of how safe we are?
“Should we make a public statement that we will not be ransomed or pay any money out?”
Last week it was revealed hackers had demanded a ransom from Redcar and Cleveland in return for restoring its systems.
Ian Miles is the assistant director of “Xentrall shared services” – a partnership between Stockton and Darlington Council which runs IT systems.
He told the people select committee the authority had “very robust means” of defending itself – with plans in place for incidents and training being taken up by staff, but warned against the council adopting a stance on ransoms.
Mr Miles said: “One thing you don’t do is say that you’re either bombproof, or you won’t be subject to ransomware, as that just ups the ante.”
When it came to Redcar, the IT chief told the committee information available was limited.
“I think they’re probably in a very difficult position and possibly worse than what we’re led to believe,” he added.
However, he revealed Stockton’s systems were tested “hundreds of thousands of times” every day by cyber threats.
Mr Miles added: “Often it’s easier to target individual members of staff with the odd spam email than to break down the front door of firewalls.
“There’s been a programme of refresher training which takes place every year for all staff – and this is going to be rolled out to members as well.”
The panel was told the latest round of IT training had been taken up by about 95% of council staff – with workers “on the ball” when it came to IT security.
But Mr Miles told members how scams were becoming ever more elaborate.
He added: “The days of some “king of an African country” trying to give you £10m seem to have long gone.
“As well as phishing, there is now something called whaling – which is going after the bigger people in an organisation and these can be quite carefully crafted.
“Rather than sending millions of emails across the world, someone might do a bit of Googling about Stockton Council.
“They’ll find out who the chief executive is, or the head of finance, and start crafting some emails or sending some more targeted ones.
“It’s a moving threat all the time – and as we’ve seen with our neighbours, it can be quite dramatic when things go wrong.”
Requests for councils to reveal how many attacks they’ve suffered – or the type of attack they’ve faced – have been declined in the past over fears revealing them would put systems at risk.
Meanwhile, Cllr Johnson was pleased to hear IT security training was being rolled out to members given her own experiences.
She added: “It’s something I always fall for.
“The latest spam email purported to come from EE – which is my provider at home. It looked exactly like anything else I would get from EE – the headings and everything.
“It said they were unable to take payment from my bank account and whether I would supply bank details – and I nearly fell for it.
“It was just so perfectly done – I’d be pleased to have training on that.”
Mr Miles rounded off with a word of advice.
The IT chief added: “I got a text two Sundays ago about my TV licence which all looked genuine saying my direct debit had failed.
“It’s just the way or the world now.
“You wouldn’t trust anyone knocking on your door at 8pm in the dark so just be wary.”