Protect and Survive

By Hargrave, Russell | Public Finance, January/February 2018 | Go to article overview

Protect and Survive


Hargrave, Russell, Public Finance


In January 2016, Lincolnshire County Council's IT systems were shut down for nearly a week by a malware attack after a staff member clicked on a malicious email attachment.

More than 47,000 files were made inaccessible and, for a short period, council staff were communicating by sending hand-written memos to one another instead of email.

It took a concerted effort across the council's management - and a quiet word encouraging as many staff as possible to take some holiday at short notice - before matters got back to normal.

The full extent of the damage was not known until later that year when the council published a detailed report into the incident.

This recommended that the council treat cybersecurity as a key strategic risk for the first time.

The WannaCry ransomware outbreak in the NHS in May last year showed just how damaging an attack can be, with chunks of the health service shut down for days and at least 6,900 NHS appointments cancelled as a result.

A Local Government Information Unit report about digital governance last year, Start of the Possible, showed that a fear of technology is a problem for some in local government. It also found that cybersecurity was named as the fourth most important issue among 809 councillors surveyed.

"When it comes to cyberattacks, there is still a long way to go for many authorities," Lauren Lucas, the LGIU's head of projects, notes.

Local authorities are facing ever increasing risks of becoming victims of cybercrime. Indeed, a PF investigation of 40 councils across England, using Freedom of Information requests, shows they have already been victims of attacks.

Yet, our research also reveals they are trying hard to stay ahead of the risk by increasing the amount they invest in keeping data safe.

Council spending on cybersecurity has risen year on year since 2012, according to analysis of the data received from our FOI requests.

The analysis found that total annual cybersecurity spending by the councils in our sample was just over £2.13m in 2015-16, the last year for which full figures are available. This is an increase of 4% from the £2.05m spent in 2014-15.

Council expenditure on cybersecurity was around £1.6m in both 2012-13 and 2013-14. This was nearly double the £767,000 spent according to figures for 2011-12.

This overall spending rise has seen increased investment not just in protection against ransomware, malware and other attacks but also in anti-virus software and IT security training for council staff and contractors.

Our investigation reveals the amount spent on IT security training among the councils that answered our FOI questions went up from £242,956 in 2014-15 to £353,528 in 2015-16 - a rise of 46%.

The amount spent on new operating software between 2014-15 and 2015-16 by the councils increased by 22%, from £113,638 to £138,360.

One local authority, Gloucester City Council, disclosed to PF that it had incurred a £100,000 fine from the Information Commissioner's Office in June 2017 after a hacker accessed what Gloucester called "financial and sensitive personal information".

An individual claiming to be from the notorious Anonymous hacker group got hold of data from 30,000 council emails in the summer of 2014, the authority revealed in its FOI response.

An ICO investigation concluded the attackers took advantage of weaknesses in Gloucester's website.

Jon McGinty, managing director of Gloucester City Council, told PF the council had invested more than £1m into improving IT security over the past three years. "The council takes the security of its data very seriously and will continue to remain vigilant to the threats we face on a daily basis."

Local authorities in Rotherham and the Forest of Dean both confirmed that they had identified more than 3,000 cyberattacks in recent years, likely to range from phishing emails sent to council staff to more sophisticated attempts to hack data. …

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