WHAT A SURPRISE the first time I got email from the relative of a former king of a West African country who needed my assistance to recover the late monarch’s fortune in a Swiss bank if only I would most urgently send airfare, and my social security and credit card numbers for which I would receive immediately a fee of $4 million and a royal title. The next few trillion similar messages were less amusing.

These days you don’t see as many of these blatant scams, although they do persist. The truly destructive fraudsters now bilk us in ways either more sophisticated or much simpler. The sophisticated ones come from hackers who steal personal data from big computers and loot the bank accounts of their unwitting victims. The simpler path to trouble comes when we don’t take or deliberately ignore basic security precautions.

Something like the simpler type could have happened but didn’t in New Lebanon, where the Office of the State Comptroller recently concluded one of its audits that focused in part on computer security. The auditors looked at a year-and-a-half of town records and procedures for the beginning of 2009 to mid-2010 and discovered that three people, all of whom had access to the town’s bank accounts used the same log-on name and password. One of them was not even a town employee.

When multiple people share both a log-on and password it becomes impossible to tell who did what. That’s exactly what the auditors found… or didn’t find. They couldn’t tell who handled huge amounts of town tax funds. That’s enough to make any taxpayer edgy.

State auditors found somewhat similar security problems at the Taconic Hills Central School District last winter after an audit there. And you have to marvel at what happened in the Town of Kinderhook, where a trusted employee with access to town accounts has pleaded guilty to siphoning off thousands of tax dollars for years until a new administration realized that the money was missing.

It does little good to berate public officials for failing to anticipate all the vulnerabilities of municipal technology. All towns and villages, school districts, the City of Hudson and county government rely on computers, and few have the resources they require to install and monitor reasonable standards of security. And even the most highly protected government and commercial systems regularly succumb to hackers.

The comptroller’s audits help, by making officials aware of the problems and suggesting changes that promote accountability and reduce the opportunities for larceny. But it seems odd with all the calls for consolidation in government that so little is said about the benefits of a cooperative approach to information technology throughout the county.

County government has taken important steps lately to improve its information technology, called “IT” in nerd-speak. Under the direction of the county’s new chief technology officer, Randy Wheeler, county agencies have reduced costs by removing the buggy whips from the computer rooms, jettisoning outdated hardware and adding ways to share data more effectively. I assume that improved security is also a goal in this process.

These improvements beg the question of how soon will it be before the towns, villages, city — even the school districts – can share in the knowledge and the capacity being developed by the county.

I can hear teeth gnashing right now as supervisors, mayors and superintendents imagine ways to resist the encroachment of Big Brother at 401 State Street, the county office building in Hudson. But why should each municipality operate and maintain its own separate IT system? How long can taxpayers afford this duplication of expensive technology?

Critics might argue that with separate systems, if the county IT network croaks, at least local governments can continue to function normally. But one of the other findings of the comptroller’s New Lebanon and Taconic Hills audits was that neither the town nor the school district had an adequate disaster recovery plan. And while the county is likely to have the resources handle most emergencies, how many towns can make the same claim when it comes to IT?

Lately the county Board of Supervisors has emphasized the need for more floor space to house its operations. But the recent state audits suggest that a bigger challenge confronts us. It’s time to shift the focus from where people work to the tools they have to do their jobs. We need to create secure, reliable IT systems at every level of government in Columbia County.  

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