Alaska Legislature

As cyberattacks continue, Alaska lawmakers consider millions for defense

JUNEAU — On March 22, the commissioner of Alaska’s Department of Revenue was called into a special meeting to discuss a problem: The Permanent Fund dividend division was under attack.

In a short period of time, more than 800,000 attempts were made to get into the division’s systems, which are in charge of paying the annual dividend to Alaskans. The division shut down its computers, the department’s firewalls held, and “no Alaskans’ data was accessed,” said Anna MacKinnon, director of the division.

“Our system repelled, as it should, the assault on our system,” she said Friday.

The attack was only the latest to afflict computer systems operated by the state of Alaska. Last year, both the state Department of Health and Social Services and the state court system were attacked online. The court system’s computers were disabled for days, and 11 months after the DHSS attack, some of that department’s online resources are still offline.

In response to these and other incidents, state legislators are considering millions of additional dollars for cybersecurity defense. In his budget proposal last December, Gov. Mike Dunleavy asked for millions in additional funding:

* $5.4 million more for the state Office of Information Technology, with much of that increase devoted to security improvements;

* $1.9 million for an IT security assessment at DHSS;

* Funding to upgrade the court system’s security software, including the security around its digital evidence system;

* New security positions at the Division of Elections and the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp.; and

* The ability to accept and distribute $9 million in federally funded cybersecurity grants to local governments.

The budget also contained cautionary notes about the cost of not funding those items. There was a separate request for $2.4 million to address backlogs at DHSS caused by last year’s cyberattack.

The Alaska House approved all of those requests when it passed its version of the state operating budget last week, according to change documents published by the Legislative Finance Division.

Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks, is the chairman of the subcommittee that wrote the Department of Revenue budget and said threats facing the agency “weren’t hypothetical.”

The department requested $2 million in additional funding to rebuild the software behind the PFD application process and told the subcommittee that it has the personal identity information “for 2 million current and past Alaskans.”

In a closed-door February briefing, the subcommittee heard details about the cybersecurity threats facing the agency. Wool declined to say what was discussed but said it was convincing. The $2 million request passed his subcommittee and the House as a whole.

The budget is now in the hands of the Senate Finance Commitee, where Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka is the co-chairman. A new version of the Senate’s planned budget will be out next week, he said, but he doesn’t anticipate any disagreement with cybersecurity funding.

Senate lawmakers may hold a closed-door meeting about the topic.

“We know there’s constant probing of pretty much any financial institution with a large portfolio in the states, so we’re just trying to beef up our defenses without telling the bad guys what we’re doing,” he said.

James Brooks

James Brooks was a Juneau-based reporter for the ADN from 2018 to May 2022.

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