ATHOL — Two and a half years ago, a hacker snuck into the computer network of Athol’s Police Department and demanded $50,000 to restore the system — an amount later reduced to $30,000. Instead of paying the ransom, vital data was manually transferred from hard copies to the network server. Data included digital photographs, arrest records, and other information. Some records, according to Chief Craig Lundgren, were irretrievably lost.
It’s hoped the town’s receipt of a state grant — announced Tuesday, Dec. 21, by Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito — will protect the town from similar attacks at any time in the future. Athol will receive nearly $73,500 — the town’s share of $3.5 million in funding being distributed to 70 municipalities under the Community Compact Cabinet Information Technology grant program. The money will be used to implement network security across all town buildings and departments.
“Essentially,” Town Manager Shaun Suhoski said in an interview a day after the grants were announced, “Athol is a $25 million business — a public corporation — that still does not have a centralized information technology department. The legacy IT setup was, the police had someone, the fire department had somebody else, Town Hall had whoever was good with computers, DPW tagged along with Town Hall. It was never in the budget.
“So, what’s happened is, with the advent of concerns over cybersecurity, the concerns over maintaining privacy as information, concerns over not having our systems hacked — and I give credit to the Finance Committee and the Selectboard for recognizing this — we have made an effort on the management side to bring all of these disparate departments under one IT vendor.”
The town, said Suhoski, has a contract with Suzor IT of Orange.
“With Suzor’s advise and planning,” he continued, “we’ve already begun migrating all of these in-house servers. So, every department had its own server in the basement or in the back room. There were different fire walls for different departments, different levels of upkeep. We really needed to make a much more robust infrastructure across all departments.”
Suhoski said that, last year, work was begun on improving the system after $50,000 for the work was approved — at the urging of the Selectboard and Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee — by voters at the Annual Town Meeting. The town manager added that, working with Suzor, the town was able to leverage the Town Meeting contribution into a grant application that landed the $73,478 state IT grant.
“The grant we just received will provide the infrastructure; what I mean by that is firewalls, switching, the overall infrastructure to secure our system to provide safe and secure Wi-Fi ability, right down to the end devices.
“So, when people come into Town Hall — even with a smart phone — there will be a separate Wi-Fi for public access and, of course, town employees have a secure network so that we can conduct business and protect the public infrastructure.”
Suhoski said it’s important for residents, taxpayers and voters to understand that other potential partners are likely to offer support for important projects when they see those same initiatives receiving support from the community.
“When the town has contributed, has a stake in a project, that’s when partners — in this case, the state — will jump on board and participate because we have a stake in the game here. It’s a much better model for success than just having your hand out hoping to get a grant for something.”
Suhoski said the town will be investing about another $20,000 through the end of the current fiscal year “to bring everybody under this umbrella.”
In announcing the grant awards at an event in Pittsfield, Gov. Charlie Baker said, “Technology systems support so many of the critical services that Massachusetts cities, towns and school districts provide to residents. We are proud that our Administration, through the work of the Community Compact Cabinet, is continuing its partnership with local communities to enable another round of innovative IT improvement projects.”
The Baker-Polito Administration has now issued 749 grants worth $19.2 million through the Community Compact Cabinet Information Technology program to help Massachusetts communities become more efficient and innovative while improving their technology infrastructure.
“The Baker-Polito Administration has long recognized the importance of modernizing the Commonwealth’s IT and cybersecurity infrastructure, as well as improving the constituent digital experience,” said Technology and Security Secretary Curt Wood. “Now, more than ever, it is essential that municipalities are able to deliver the critical services that government provides through a secure digital environment.”
Suhoski said the town continues to move forward with a project to provide a kiosk which residents will be able to use to conduct town business during hours that Town Hall is closed.
“Twenty-twenty-two is going to be bright,” he concluded. “We’re going to be safe, secure and increase the public’s ability to access Town Hall at their convenience.”
Greg Vine can be reached at [email protected]