Cyber Ready? Bucks Law Enforcement, Schools & Local Governments Gear Up Against Online Threats

Hal Conte

Across Bucks County, officials in positions ranging from local government administration to police departments and school districts are gearing up in a cyber-arms race with opponents ranging from hackers to high school cheaters.
“There’s always a demand, but in the last three years it’s increased [substantially]. The police departments are trying to keep up,” said Victor Vona, who conducts cybersecurity training for Bucks County law enforcement personnel.
Cybercrime has been on the rise throughout the United States. 2016 saw 19,465 phishing-type attacks, 2,673 ransomware incidents, 18,712 social media related crimes, and 27,573 personal data breaches, according to data published by the FBI on Dec. 13, 2017.
In Pennsylvania, there were 98 phishing-type attacks, 5 ransomware incidents, 180 social media related crimes, and 230 personal data breaches.
Three virtual currency-related crimes also occurred in the state in 2016. With the explosion of popularity for Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash, and other cryptocurrencies since the spring of 2017, the numbers published in 2018 will likely be higher.
According to SecureList, a global security website, 2018 will see a rise in ransomware, attack services, and malware infections.
“We provide training, we do numerous courses on various types of cybersecurity and cyber investigations. They’re brought in by outside vendors or the Feds,” Vona explained.
There are 39 police department in Bucks County. According to Vona, his training center also teaches law enforcement in Lehigh, Northampton, and other nearby counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Vona says that Bucks County began its cybersecurity program in 1989, with his own work in the county starting in 2013. Over 900 officials currently working in the county have been trained, he added.
Individual townships are making extensive use of the program, according to Jean Tanner, an executive assistant at Newtown’s Police Department.
“For cybercrimes, the detectives here have been schooled and have contacts with outside agencies,” Tanner said.
According to Tanner, this includes FBI training in addition to the courses taught in Doylestown. Tanner is unaware of any new or ongoing investigations of cybercrime in Newtown.
A review of materials on the police department’s right to know portal showed no reports of computer or cybercrime in the township before or since the arrest of two women for conspiring to hack Bucks computer systems to change grades reported in the Dec. 7 issue of the Centurion.
Along with training for police officers and other law enforcement, Bucks officials have sought to shore up cybersecurity for local government services, which security experts nationwide are concerned will become a top target for nefarious actors domestically as well as from foreign intelligence services.
Last February, the county commissioners approved a three-year information contract costing over $1.2 million, giving Virginia technology firm Level 3 Communications the means to protect the county’s buildings, computer systems, and administration from cyber threats such as hackers as well as improve the speed and connectivity of local internet services.
“Our training has changed with society’s needs,” Vona said, adding that the increased pace of technological development has required ongoing training for officers.
One area of cybercrime gaining particular attention from Bucks County politicians is online stalking, particularly of children. Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick of Newtown has introduced a bill onto the House floor that will increase penalties for those who stalk minors online.
The bill, called the Combat Online Predators Act (H.R. 4203), was recently the subject of an editorial in the Courier Times, where Fitzpatrick noted that the rise of the internet has “digitized crimes from robbery to stalking, forcing lawmakers and law enforcement to open a new front against criminals untethered to geographic locations and hidden behind virtual screens.”
Cyber wrongdoings are not limited to dangerous crime. In high schools throughout Bucks County, online cheating is gaining ground among students.
In a December meeting of the Pennsbury School Board, Isaac Stephens, a high school junior, gave a detailed presentation on cheating in local school districts, including Pennsbury and Council Rock high schools.
He described how teachers’ use of worksheets copied off the internet makes it easy for enterprising cheaters to rip answers to multiple choice questions.
“Almost 60 percent of students say they look up the answer key for at least half of their assignments…only 25 percent never copied from other students’ work,” Stephens explained, using data he compiled via SurveyMonkey. “The system is benefitting the dishonest, rather than the honest.”
Stephens recommended that teachers should consider using GoGuardian software to crack down on cheating by monitoring students’ online behavior on laptops they receive as part of their 1:1 program.
William Gretzula, superintendent of Pennsbury school district, appeared warm to the idea. “As you said, cheating is inevitable, but it can be reduced,” he said.
Software created by GoGuardian is already being used in-classroom by teachers in this manner, according to a presentation posted on the district’s 1:1 webpage. In addition to giving teachers the ability to check up on students, the software also filters YouTube videos based on their grade level.
Stephens is frustrated by the way some people use the internet to get around the rules. “I worked 20 hours over the weekend on my outline… When I heard some people were copying their outlines directly, it made me very frustrated,” he noted.
The message put forward by school board officials in response was clear. “Those who cut corners have short-gain success, but in the long term these efforts don’t pay off,” Gretzula said.
In the end, neither does cybercrime. The Combat Fraud and Abuse Act makes trespassing in a government computer, accessing a computer for the purpose to defraud, trafficking in passwords, and exhortation crimes worth up to 10 years in federal prison.