The (Munster) Times. July 19, 2019
Paying cyber ransom brings slippery slope
U.S. government policy forbids negotiating with terrorists for good reason.
Despite the impact of short-term threats, often including the potential loss of precious human lives, such negotiations give terrorist organizations a leg up in legitimacy.
And if a government entity pays the demands of terrorists, who's to say if other ill-meaning groups will take advantage of that precedent in the future?
A similar threat lies in the very real challenge of cyber ransom, to which private companies and government agencies alike — including Northwest Indiana entities — are falling victim.
Government agencies especially should be cautious how they choose to play ball with cyber ransom terrorists.
It happened to the LaPorte County government offices earlier this week.
Unknown hackers took over a portion of the Region county's computer system.
"This particular virus — RYUK — that was used by the bad actors was particularly insidious in that it jumped over all our firewalls and was able to penetrate backup servers," said Vidya Kora, president of the LaPorte County commissioners. "Even after conferring with the FBI's cyber security unit to determine if their decryption codes would work, they determined after several tries their 'keys' would not unlock our data."
In all, the computer virus infected about 7% of the county's computers and server network on July 6, county officials said.
Then came the ransom demand from an unknown and clandestine entity: Pay us $221,000, or you'll never see that data again.
Ultimately, LaPorte County government opted to negotiate.
A firm hired by the county talked the computer ransom down to $132,000, which the county paid via digital currency.
County insurance is set to cover $100,000 of the ransom.
Now, LaPorte County must do all it can to shore up its cyber security, particularly because it just became a bigger target. Would-be hackers may very well believe that since the county has paid up once, it's likely to be willing to pay up again.
Cyber security experts note that's one of the biggest threats of playing ball with those demanding e-ransoms.
Government bodies within Northwest Indiana, and throughout the country, should be pooling knowledge and resources to fight this problem before it becomes an epidemic.
Having to fold to the monetary demands of cyber terrorists will never be a tenable solution.
The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette. July 19, 2019
The price of a hike
Indiana Michigan Power, which just received permission to raise charges for electric service last year, is back asking permission to impose an even bigger rate increase to take effect over the next 11/2 years. Who's to say they don't need it? What does the average person know about running an electric utility?
Fortunately, there is a process in place that allows the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to thoroughly evaluate that request, which would raise an average residential customer's bill by 11.75%.
The company says it needs money to replace aging infrastructure and add "smart meters" permitting quick response to any customer's service problems. "If (those needs) were discretionary and we could wait years and years, we would," I&M President and CEO Toby Thomas said in an interview Tuesday. "This system can't wait that long, and that's the reason we're making these investments."
The commission has the time, expertise and authority to weigh such assertions and to grant, deny or reduce the utility's request. In the case settled last year, the utility ultimately agreed to an increase roughly a third the size of its original request.
An important part of the evaluation process by the IURC took place over the past week through hearings in Fort Wayne, Muncie and South Bend. In Fort Wayne, where the largest number of ratepayers signed up to speak, the commission, the electric company and the Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor, an independent governmental entity that advocates for ratepayers, got an earful. Customers testified the average $21.11-a-month increase, combined with other sources of financial stress, could put them under, The Journal Gazette's Rosa Salter Rodriguez reported.
As in previous rate increases, the poorest customers will be hit hardest. Witnesses noted that the utility's request includes a 43% jump in the fixed portion of a customer's bill, which makes it harder for those living on the financial edge to control the size of their bill by using less electricity.
"My wife is disabled and (we) can't even afford her medicine," one witness, Jim Kline, told the commissioners emotionally. "There's no compassion."
The morning after the hearings, a woman who said she was 65 years old and relies on fixed disability payments left this message for us: "The future in Fort Wayne doesn't look bright. The future would be a lot brighter if you guys would fight against this raise ... just please, try to help seniors."
The economic boom notwithstanding, many in Fort Wayne already are struggling to pay for utilities. Since Jan. 1, Allen County's largest township has received 614 requests for first-time or repeat assistance with electric bills, according to Austin Knox, deputy trustee for Wayne Township, and Porsche Williams, director of intake and investigations.
Knox, interviewed Thursday, said if the rate-increase request isn't averted, "We'll see a lot more people owe money. We will see more people come in." And though there is a rainy-day fund for such contingencies, Knox said, there could come a point where the township doesn't have enough money to help all who are unable to pay their electric bills.
Last year, United Way of Allen County provided help with 2,219 electric bills.
Thomas said his company has restarted its Neighbor-to-Neighbor program, which allows customers to help other customers pay their bills. The utility is also "close" to launching a program that could forgive a bill for some customers who fall behind, and the rate request includes a proposal for a pilot program to help residents use less energy.
"We work on payment plans if customers are struggling to pay," Thomas said. But "at some point, you have to take action and say, you've got to pay for the service."
Kerwin Olson, executive director of Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana, one of the organizations planning to intervene in I&M's request, said the programs so far available are far too small, and are designed only to help customers in crisis. A better approach, he said, would be to set rates for low-income customers that are affordable in the first place, as some neighboring states do. "That's no different than economic-development tradeoffs," he said, "or giving the City of Fort Wayne discounts on their streetlights."
If I&M proves that it must raise its rates, the commission and the Utility Consumer Counselor must find a way to fairly ensure that its poorest customers aren't left behind.
The (Anderson) Herald Bulletin. July 21, 2019
Regional jail merits careful consideration
A joint regional jail, which is being discussed by Madison and Henry county council members, is an innovative way to solve the overcrowding problem, but only if the benefits outweigh the costs.
Overcrowding in jails poses a threat to the health and safety of inmates as well as the staff.
However, there are several logistical questions that must be answered before such a project can move forward.
In order to benefit both counties, the jail would need to be placed roughly halfway between the two county seats. Even then, transportation costs would increase as inmates from each county would have to be transported for their court dates. This would not only cost the counties money but would take up valuable time from the police departments.
It may make sense to maintain a temporary holding facility near the courthouse for inmates who are due in court, but this would amount to the county maintaining two jails.
An option under discussion is the hiring of a private company to build and run a jail facility, a concept strongly opposed by sheriffs Richard McCorkle and Scott Mellinger and Madison County prosecutor Rodney Cummings.
We agree with Cummings that those who operate correctional facilities need to be accountable to the public.
We commend the officials of Madison and Henry counties for exploring innovative solutions to the overcrowding problem, but a regional jail is one that should be considered with caution.