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State computers are easy prey for hackers, officials warn

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Threats to state government systems that hold vast amounts of private data are becoming more sophisticated and more frequent every day, said Minnesota IT Services commissioner Tom Baden. He gets daily briefings on cybersecurity issues. 

"It's not uncommon for me to see 3 million attacks from 150 international locations, a phishing attack through email looking for credentials or even ransomware attacks, on any given day," he said. "Multiple concurrent events are happening constantly."

To fight that, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is a proposing a $125 million technology upgrade for state government, including tighter cybersecurity protections. He could get some help from a top Republican who is calling for similar improvements to state agency computer systems. 

One of the biggest threats comes from dedicated denial-of-service, or DDoS attacks. 

That's when hackers try to flood government systems with so much traffic that they crash the systems or make them unusable, said Chris Buse, the state's chief information security officer.

One such attack took down the Minnesota court system website for 10 days last year. 

Dayton's budget proposal includes $74 million to boost the state's cybersecurity defenses. The money would help the state hire more cybersecurity experts and create secure data centers.

Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans said the governor is also proposing $51 million for improvements to the state's IT infrastructure. 

That infrastructure handles about 300,000 government transactions every day, Frans said.

"We believe there are many opportunities to really enhance both the security level of our IT infrastructure but also to improve the overall functioning," he said, "so that the citizens of Minnesota get services from Minnesota state government at a quicker and more efficient way than they are now."

Frans noted that the state accounting system, for example, is so outdated it will lose vendor support next year unless upgrades are made.

Other systems are also badly out of date.

Baden said the Minnesota Department of Education is relying on a mainframe system that was programmed in the 1970s.

"What's interesting about that system is most of the people who can maintain that system are 20 years into retirement," Baden said.

Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt is also interested in information technology upgrades for state government. 

Daudt will detail his own proposal Wednesday. One part of the plan is to form a panel that will study ways to modernize state government.

His primary focus is using technology to improve the way state government serves Minnesotans and the way agencies interact with each other. Daudt's vision goes beyond buying new computers. He suggested it could save money, too.

"Maybe we start combining things or reducing things or eliminating things that are duplicative," Daudt said, "in an effort to make sure that the Minnesotans that we serve really are the center of how we think about what state government does and how it can be effective and efficient."

Correction (Jan. 31, 2017): An earlier version of this story misspelled Tom Baden's name.