Two years after a crippling computer meltdown, Virginia's IT network is now stronger and more secure, but online attacks are coming at an alarming rate, and the next disaster could happen at any time.
Anyone who works for or does business with a state agency is involved in some way with the state's IT network. So when 70 million attacks come in just six months, it's everybody's problem.
In Virginia, there are about 58,000 state-run computers and another 3,500 servers, all interconnected. But for a solid week in August of 2010, all anyone seemed to care about was the standstill at the DMV.
"I have a job, and I'm working, and I can't drive right now," said a woman we interviewed at the time.
Files were lost, including pictures and signatures. As a result, people couldn't get new licenses.
Sam Nixon, Chief Information Officer of the Commonwealth, remembers it like it was yesterday.
"It was very challenging," Nixon said.
The problem was traced to a hardware failure and human error. The Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA), and its multi-billion dollar contractor Northrup Grumman, were criticized heavily. In an interview this week, Nixon said -25 months later- about 90% of the planned improvements have been completed.
"One of the things we learned is, if you're going to plan for an outage, you actually have to practice," said Nixon.
Last month, Nixon told the state's watchdog agency (JLARC) that hardware and storage systems have been replaced, making another similar outage unlikely but not impossible.
"I feel that it's much improved. But I think any CIO will tell you that you're constantly thinking and asking yourself, what can go wrong?" Nixon said.
For example, Virginia's computer network continues to be attacked, including 70 million blocked attempts from January to June.
"There are individuals in the environment, if you will, who basically make it their living to try and penetrate these systems," Nixon said.
Systems that include voter rolls, tax information, and medical records. Nixon says he is more confident now in the IT system, but always aware of what might happen next.
"It's a little bit like being a fire chief. You hope for a quiet day, but you know that next phone call could be the thing that makes your day not so quiet," Nixon said.
That "thing", Nixon said, could be your everyday hacker in mom's basement, or an international cyber terrorist intent on disrupting the entire government.
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