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Editorial: Unanswered questions follow county cyberattack

An editorial we published in December concerned the risk posed by potential cyberattacks to local school districts —already challenged by security concerns in the wake of mass classroom killings nationwide During cyberattacks, hackers break into computer systems, steal critical business and personal information and then demand a ransom to return it. Businesses, hospital systems and even municipalities have been forced to comply.

Last year, the Riverhead Central School District was targeted, with officials saying staff data was compromised. Districts across Suffolk County – including Montauk, Sag Harbor, Miller Place, Bay Shore and Port Jefferson — have also been targets. The Mattituck-Cutchogue School District experienced a cyberattack earlier this year.

Now it’s happened again, at the government level. Now, the latest news on this front. As we report this week, “On the morning of Sept. 8, the members of the Suffolk County Legislature were given a directive: shut down your computers.”

The reality of an attack soon set in. Today, two weeks later, county websites that serve hundreds of thousands of residents are still down, as are email accounts officials use to communicate with the public.

County Executive Steve Bellone said the initial investigation showed the presence of malware as well as the “hallmarks of ransomware.” Then, a few days later, the source of attack was identified as a ransomware team called “BlackCat.” In a post on a dark website, the hackers wrote that they extracted more than 4 terabytes of data.

The site identified some of what was taken: court records, contracts and the personal data of county residents. County officials have not said whether there has been a request for money in return for the data.

Meanwhile, the NewYork Police Department is providing Suffolk with additional call center operators and the NewYork State Department of Homeland Security is providing stronger firewall protection. State police are also assisting the county with routine duties such as fingerprinting suspects after arrests.

Neither Southold nor Riverhead, officials say, has experienced serious issues related to the county attack.

County officials said this week that offices remain up and running. “We’re doing everything we can, even in this challenging circumstances, to keep it as business as usual for residents,” said Mr. Bellone.

We hope this situation is taken care of quickly and that no financial demands are made on the county for information county residents need to know is safe.