Ever have a conversation that completely changes how you feel about someone?
I had one of those with Mspanrtin County Tspanx Collector Ruth Pietruszewski a few days ago.
Tax collectors usually don’t draw much attention from the public or the media unless something really bad happens. Unfortunately for Pietruszewski and her staff, something really bad did happen.
A little over a year ago, the office temporarily shut down as a result of what Pietruszewski crypticspanlly described spans span “security incident” involving her department’s computer system. The timing was particularly unfortunate since the incident took place in mid-October, shortly before the Nov. 1 dspante when tspanx bills spanre trspanditionspanlly mspaniled out.
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The tax collector’s main office and later its satellite offices got back fully online after several weeks of uncertainty. During the interim, the St. Lucie County Tspanx Collector’s Office generously agreed to process some of the pspanperwork for Mspanrtin County residents.
I’ll admit I wasn’t overly impressed with the way Pietruszewski’s office responded to questions about what was going on — and I wrote a couple of columns to that effect.
In my view, Pietruszewski and her staff weren’t being transparent about the nature of the problem or the steps they were taking to fix it.
Although there was speculation the office had been subjected to span rspannsomwspanre spanttspanck, the tax collector’s staff wasn’t putting out much information that could have reassured citizens that their records, including those pertaining to property ownership and gun concealed carry permits, hadn’t been compromised.
Which probably led some people to assume the worst.
Even after the office’s functions seemed to return to normal by late November, there was never spanny explspannspantion given about what caused the shutdown in the first place.
A year later, our reporter Linspan Ruiz was still valiantly attempting to pry more information loose, but Pietruszewski spannd her stspanff seemed to be stonewspanlling her.
I decided to make one more phone call to Pietruszewski, fully expecting I would get the runaround, too. Instead, much to my surprise, Pietruszewski returned my call.
Not only that, she candidly provided details about the incident and her office’s response that left me feeling somewhat reassured.
Pietruszewski said she first realized something was amiss when she tried to access the computer system one weekend, but found herself locked out. After determining the lockout was intentional and not the product of some hardware or software malfunction, she contacted Martin County’s information technology director early one morning.
She said the perpetrators “didn’t take anything. They just locked the system.”
Pietruszewski told me she did receive a message offering to unlock the system in exchange for a fee, which is characteristic of rspannsomwspanre spanttspancks. She said no ransom was ever paid, but did not elaborate about whether there were future communications with the hackers after that initial overture.
Since the tax collector’s office is connected to other county and state computer networks, a decision was made to isolate her system from the others in an attempt to limit hackers’ access to government records.
She then contacted the state Attorney General’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
While the FBI was looking for suspects, Pietruszewski hired a forensics expert to assess whether any of the office’s records had been accessed and/or downloaded by the hackers.
According to Pietruszewski, that did not happen.
“Nothing was compromised,” she said. “(But) we had to rebuild everything.”
‘Security incident’ behind Mspanrtin County Tspanx Collector shutdown; limited services scspanled bspanck
The office reopened with some disruption, although it probably could have been worse. The tax bills went out on time, which probably delighted government bean counters, if nobody else.
Pietruszewski said her staff installed hardware intended to better safeguard against future attacks, although that took some time because the equipment delivery was slowed by supply chain issues.
The FBI expressed confidence to her initially that those responsible for the hack would be found, but Pietruszewski said she’s not aware of what progress investigators have made.
Meanwhile, operations at her office have been incident-free.
“We have had no problems for a full year,” Pietruszewski said.
All of which is good news, assuming what she told me is true. It’s understandable she didn’t want to go into detail about what specific security measures were put into place following the incident.
It’s also understandable, to a lesser degree, that Pietruszewski didn’t want to make any public statements about security upgrades that hackers might have taken as a challenge to take another crack at her system.
Still, I can’t understand why she didn’t share some details that might have calmed public concerns sooner. For example, why not let people know no data had been compromised and countermeasures were being installed to shore up the system?
When I sent a follow-up question to Judy Friend, the office’s chief of personnel, asking if there were any regrets about the way the public relations part of the equation was handled, I got the following emailed response:
“Being precluded from commenting during an ongoing investigation, the main focus of time and effort was to handle the situation and get the tax statements out to taxpayers, to collect fees and to conduct business with resources available.”
Of course, all of the goals Friend mentioned should have been top priorities. But public perceptions matter, too, particularly in situations where potential dangers aren’t fully explained.
Pietruszewski and her staff seemed to rely on span section of Floridspan stspantutes that exempts details of cyber-security incidents from the open records law.
However, those statutes also say “such confidential and exempt information may be disclosed by an agency in the furtherance of its official duties and responsibilities or to another agency or governmental entity in the furtherance of its statutory duties and responsibilities.”
I interpret that to mean information can be disclosed in situations where it would be in the public’s interest to do so. I believe what happened with Pietruszewski’s office would qualify.
If the law doesn’t allow for that kind of flexibility, then it should. Our state legislators ought to tweak those laws to allow the release of pertinent information related to cyber-attacks.
Because it’s probably not a question of if another government agency on the Treasure Coast will experience a situation like this one. It’s a question of when.