Alford: Cybersecurity a Burgeoning Issue

Hang around the process long enough and you’ll recognize the same phrases being parroted in each and every regular session of the Louisiana Legislature.

Reduce unfunded accrued liability. Protect the TOPS scholarship program. Save the coast. Cut taxes. Control spending. Mold a better health care delivery system. Be smart on crime.

Just to name a few.

There’s actually a fairly lengthy list of perennial policy issues in Baton Rouge. These topics surface annually, whether in actual legislation, non-binding resolutions or during debates.

But there’s a new subject worth keeping tabs on, a political issue that will sooner than later take its place alongside other recurring topics at the Capitol. For anyone who has a credit card or a Netflix account or a mobile banking app, it’s not an unfamiliar issue. For lawmakers and administrators, however, the threat is fresh and ever-evolving. 

Data breaches and hacker mischief from the past several years have sent state governments scrambling to improve security practices, to find money for insurance policies, to push sensitive information behind firewalls and to investigate computer crimes.

Louisiana is no exception. In fact, over the past year the state Office of Risk Management has purchased cyber insurance for 65 percent of the agencies and departments that it insures. The goal is to cover the rest within the next two years, according to Jacques Berry, the communications director for the Division of Administration.

A Pew Charitable Trusts report published three weeks ago found that 38 percent of all U.S. states have purchased cyber insurance since 2011. That figure is up from 20 percent just two years ago.

Louisiana started its coverage in early 2016. Berry said the "most sensitive" agencies and departments were folded into the coverage first. The initial cost to the state was $500,000 annually, but that price tag has been slowly growing as more policies have been added.

The insurance covers credit monitoring, legal fees and general liability. Each agency or department pays for the coverage out of their own budgets. So far, thankfully, most haven’t needed to use their policies. "We’ve had one claim, a minor one earlier this year regarding an [Office of Group Benefits] customer data breach by our pharmacy provider," Berry said. "Fewer than 100 OGB policyholders were affected."

In many ways, it’s just the beginning for Louisiana in its digital war. Just consider what’s happening nationally. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 42 states have introduced more than 240 bills or resolutions this calendar year related to cybersecurity. Of that count, 27 states have enacted legislation.

States have been treating the related policy proposals as public safety issues while trying to address concerns for both the government and the private sector. Connecticut has a new law that creates the crime of computer extortion. Delaware has new guidelines for safeguarding state-involved business transactions. Michigan is spending more money on “cyber security staffing.”

Back in Louisiana, the House and Senate approved a resolution earlier this year that charges the Division of Administration with studying the “current status of mission critical information technology systems.” A report to lawmakers is due by Feb. 1 and the division is expected to identify risks, costs, outdated operations, ineffective technologies and more.

Authored by Reps. Barry Ivey of Central and Ray Garofalo of Chalmette, the resolution frames the issue as a matter of public safety, like other states have done, and gives some jurisdiction over the report to the House and Senate select committees on homeland security.

Depending on the findings, and how much is able to be made public, the report could in some small way transform the 2018 regular session into a cybersecurity session. Which would be appropriate. After all, in addition to taking our tax dollars, our state government guards our Social Security numbers, banking details and credit card information.

There’s truly no time to spare, and the issue is just about as complex as it gets. As states try to figure out how to best tackle this beast, they’re also looking to the federal government for guidance. For example, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers and the National Governors Association want the White House to streamline some of its regulations that they argue are hampering efforts on the state level.

As long as it doesn't lead to limited access to the internet experience as we know it, I think we can all agree that this issue deserves an annual seat at the policymaking table in Baton Rouge. Because the digital door has been kicked open, in our personal and professional lives, and in our government, and there’s no closing it now.

Sarah Gamard contributed reporting for this column.

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