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State cyber security operation battles hackers

Oklahoma has created a centralized computer security system to engage in real time battles against hackers.
by Randy Ellis Modified: December 1, 2013 at 10:00 pm •  Published: December 1, 2013

Big brother isn't the only one watching.

Little brother is, too.

A few blocks north of the state Capitol — in a secure, heavily fortified portion of a building constructed to withstand the force of an EF5 tornado — two state cyber security analysts and a network specialist sit around a circular pod of computer screens.

Eyes dart back and forth as they carefully monitor the activities on nearly 30,000 state computers — looking for trouble.

They can tell you that last August someone from a foreign country tried to infiltrate the state network to obtain sensitive information — prompting security officials to notify the FBI and Homeland Security.

They also can tell you that employees on the state computer network made more than 2 million page view visits to Facebook over a recent three-month period.

This is Oklahoma's Cyber Command Security Operations Center, the state's last great line of defense against foreign cyber terrorists and domestic hackers who are constantly out to create mischief and steal taxpayers' private data.

When anti-virus software and other computer security programs identify a particularly ominous threat, an alarm sounds and flashing lights go off around the border of a large video screen mounted on the wall. The warning sends workers scrambling until the threat can be identified, isolated and neutralized.

Lesser threats are constantly being identified on computer screens and are handled quietly on a routine basis.

Designers of Star Trek's Starship Enterprise likely would be proud.

Oklahomans should be, too, according to Mark Gower, the command center's chief of security.

Oklahoma employees designed and built the system themselves after being told it would cost $220,000 to $600,000 to create what they wanted, he said.

It is considered the most advanced state computer security system out there and has prompted visits from Homeland Security, the FBI and officials from several states, Gower said.

At any given time, “56 percent of the state's (computer) assets are under attack,” Gower said.

Detecting threats

Anti-virus software, firewalls and other security programs automatically defeat thousands of attacks every day. About 130 unique incidents a day rise to the level where they are electronically called to the attention of the state cyber security professionals for scrutiny and possible additional action.

A couple times a month, the detection programs identify threats serious enough that they set off the siren and flashing lights. It happens more often when additional state agencies are added to the centralized cyber security system.

State computers store a lot of sensitive information, like taxpayers' Social Security numbers and income data that cyber criminals would like to hack so they could steal identities and money.

Protecting that information is a huge responsibility as technology and cyber attack methods continue to evolve, Gower said.

For years, each state agency was responsible for operating its own computer system and each agency had its own information technology employees, with varying levels of expertise, who were responsible for keeping data secure and combating cyber attacks.

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by Randy Ellis
Investigative Reporter
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two...
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