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Council orders cyber security review, after hack in 2020

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The City of Prince George will be conducing an independent review of its cyber security, after an online scammer nearly bilked the city out of $700,000 last year.

On Monday, city council approved spending between $25,000 and $40,000 to hire independent consultants to assess the city’s computer security.

“I think urgency is of importance here. It’s just a matter of time before we are targeted by more sophisticated attacks,” Coun. Cori Ramsay said. “We have a lot of personal data… Facing a cybersecurity breach could be devastating, not just to the city, but to the residents. This is about protecting residents, keeping their data safe.”

In September the city discovered it had been targeted by a computer-based fraudster, who redirected $700,000 in payments that were intended to go to a contractor. With the help of financial institutions, the city recovered $325,000 of the stolen money.

While that incident appears to have been a “social engineering scam” that began when the contractor was tricked into sharing confidential information that was then used to intercept the payments, it illustrated the need for a professional assessment of the city’s security, city IT manager Bill McCloskey said.

“Cybersecurity is a very specialized field,” McCloskey said. “We’re doing this off the side of our desk.”

When asked by council how urgent the review was, McCloskey said it is difficult to know, until it is too late. 

“If something happens, than it was a dire need,” he said.

Other municipal governments, including Dawson Creek, Saskatoon, Sask., and Burlington, Ont., have been targeting recently by online scammers, McCloskey said.

“The impact of these things can be huge,” Coun. Garth Frizzell said. “I don’t think it’s wise for us to put this off any longer.”

While councillors agreed on the importance of the review, several baulked at using a third to half of city council’s $75,000 contingency fund to cover the cost.

Coun. Brian Skakun, who voted against the review, said that city council’s contingency is normally used to respond to requests from local community groups. If the review was a staff priority, it should be funded from the city’s operational budget, he said.

“We are cut to the bone,” city director of finance Kris Dalio said. “We have no training budget. We have no travel budget. We have nowhere to take this from.”

Taking the money from the city’s general contingency fund could leave the city facing a shortfall at the end of the year, Dalio added.

Coun. Teri McConnachie voted in favour of the review, but said using council’s contingency fund, “reminds me of taking the kids’ tooth fairy money to buy milk.”

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