The US local governments cybersecurity crisis in eight charts

Ooooh, futuristic. Image: ItNeverEnds/Pixabay.

This spring, two large American cities learned that their information systems were hacked. First, Atlanta revealed that it had been the victim of a ransomware attack that took many of the city’s services offline for nearly a week, forcing police to revert to taking written case notes, hampering the Atlanta’s court system and preventing residents from paying water bills online. Then, Baltimore’s 311 and 911 dispatch systems were taken offline for more than 17 hours, forcing dispatchers to log and process requests manually. Both attacks could have been prevented. And they are more evidence of the poor, if not appalling, state of local government cybersecurity in the United States.

We know this because in 2016, in partnership with the International City/County Management Association, we conducted the first-ever nationwide survey of local government cybersecurity. Among other things, the survey data showed just how poorly local governments practice cybersecurity.

Under near-constant attack, but not fully aware

Nearly half – 44 per cent – of all the respondents told us they experience cyberattacks at least daily. Based on prior research, we are confident that rate is actually much higher.

The volume of attacks isn’t dropping – and in some cases it’s increasing.

But even so, many communities didn’t know how frequently they are attacked, and most didn’t count or catalogue initial attacks – though more than half did track more serious incidents and breaches.

More than half weren’t able to determine who was attacking their systems.

Unprepared to respond, and with not enough support

Certainly, there are local governments that do a commendable job with cybersecurity. If previous research into government information technology systems and electronic government can be a guide, they are most likely larger, more well-funded and more well-managed governments. However, the data from our more recent survey strongly suggest that at least some, and perhaps even a large fraction of, local governments may be unable to respond to electronic intrusions.

In part this is because few local officials are aware of the need for cybersecurity. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents to the survey, who were nearly all information technology or cybersecurity officials, said that top managers understood the need. However, among other groups in local governments, awareness dropped considerably. Perhaps as a result, support for cybersecurity efforts was also not as strong as Atlanta’s and Baltimore’s experiences suggest it should be.

With most local government officials and staff unaware and unsupportive, it is not surprising that cybersecurity is so poor among American local governments. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms admitted that cybersecurity was not a high priority, although “it certainly has gone to the front of the line”.

And yet, crucial barriers remain, largely to do with how much money is allocated to cybersecurity efforts.

Getting more people in the know

If local officials are going to do a better job protecting their information assets, they’ll first need to know a lot more about what’s actually happening. The numbers of survey respondents who answered “Don’t know” to our questions was surprisingly high. No top local officials, whether elected or appointed, should be unaware of basic cybersecurity information, like whether their systems have been attacked or breached, or who’s attacking their systems and why.

The ConversationKnowing these answers will only become more critical as computing becomes more deeply embedded in systems running “smart” cities. If computers control traffic lights, sewage plants and electrical grids, then the consequence of attacks is more severe than just loss of information or computer services.


Donald Norris, Professor Emeritus of Public Policy, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Anupam Joshi, Oros Family Professor and Chair, Department of Computer Science & Electrical Engineering, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Laura Mateczun, Ph.D. Student in Public Policy, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Tim Finin, Willard and Lillian Hackerman Chair in Engineering and Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.