It’s a real issue, with real consequences

On February 19, 2016 it was reported by the LA Times that a Ransomware attack was performed on Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, a Hospital in the Los Angeles area. Hackers infiltrated their computer system, which is frighteningly easy with a little know-how, and installed a piece of software that encrypted the hospital’s medical computer files.

Once the medical files were encrypted, it was game over. If the hospital ever wanted that data to be usable again, they had to pay the responsible hackers $17,000 in untraceable Bitcoin. The hospital made a tough decision, but the only one they could under the circumstances, with lives dependent on that information, they paid the ransom to get their data back. This particular technique of using software to hold important data ransom is so completely effective that even the FBI has suggested that the best course of action to recover your data is to just pay the ransom(https://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2015/10/28/did-the-fbi-really-say-pay-up-for-ransomware-heres-what-to-do/). It is used to extort $500 sums from people to recover personal data to institutions such as this hospital for $17,000.

How did we get here? How can hackers be so effective that they force a hospital to pay ransom to retrieve their data? The hackers used technology which is widely available. The ransomware software is so user friendly that often the hackers that use it don’t know how it works, they bought it from someone else. The trickiest thing they have to accomplish is to get it on your computer. But, once installed on your device it is as Outlook Email to extort money from you.

This ransomware is practically consumer grade technology and yet most people don’t know about it and don’t do the simple things that could to protect themselves. This level of willful ignorance of technology is like leaving your door standing wide open when you go on vacation and being surprised when your TV has been stolen.

Does this have anything to do with your environmental business? Of course it does.  Read on.

The hackers have moved on from locking down personal computers for $500 to locking down hospital computers for $17,000 dollars. It is no time at all before they go after the giants in our industry and other industries like it to extort millions. Imagine if a company like CB&I had its nuclear power plant plans locked down during the construction process of one of its latest projects. Imagine if rock core data or geophysical data were locked down in mining and wellsite services companies like Rio Tinto or Schlumberger. That data is sometimes worth millions of dollars.

Those big companies often times do take the time to protect their computers because as US government contractors they are forced to take such precautions. But the small to medium sized businesses that make up the majority of the environmental industry have not taken the same precautions and it may not be too long before you hear about environmental companies paying ransom to get their data back.

In fact, it already has.  Take a look at TestAmerica.  They got hacked in January 2016 and it took down hundreds of TestAmerica computers and analytical instruments throughout the entire network of TestAmerica labs.  It took them 3 weeks to get back online.  Imagine the damage inflicted by something that big.  Millions of dollars, not thousands.  And the long-term impact is even greater.  Just think of the client damage.  A lot of clients left, and probably won’t come back.

There’s a lesson there for our business. We need to learn to use our technology to protect our data. We need to priotize learning technology so that we can defend ourselves. We need to know whats out there and how it will affect us.

Play offense, not just defense

But there is another lesson to learn, and that is that we need to learn technology to go on the offense. Not to start taking data hostage, but recognizing that the same computer that can encrypt our data can keep our data safe from prying eyes, that the same computer can run software which can model contaminant plumes and suggest solutions that can save time and money. We can learn the lesson that the same technology that enables a technician to call the office from the field enables a groundwater well to send data from the field.

We don’t realize it but technology has infiltrated our business whether we like it or not. We all got into the business for different reasons, some of us were environmentalists who wanted to make a difference, some wanted a job that would have them working outside while helping bird and beast, some fell into the profession with a bit of luck and opportunity…but what almost all of us have in common is a focus on the environment. It is this focus that has kept us from seeing how technology has changed our jobs, how it is changing our jobs, and how it will change the industry in the future.

The future is bright….

  • The real estate industry is using drones to take aerial photographs of houses and land. How long before drones become a necessity for doing Phase I ESAs?
  • UPS uses scanners and GPS to track every item it delivers. How long before the environmental industry begins tracking its people and equipment the same way?
  • Google uses advanced software to find and catalog websites across the entire internet. How long until a similar quality search engine can tap into every public record regarding a property, find out if it is contaminated, with what, and recommend the most effective remediation solution based on aquifer and water quality data available for the area?
  • How long before we stop treating our smartphones like disposable field cameras and start treating them like the mobile computing platforms that they really are?

The EnviroTech Summit will be showcasing technology that exists today that can send data wirelessly to your office from the far off field, smartphone apps that can improve field assessments, eliminate rework and paper waste, and upload data collected to a central hub for project managers to review.

There will be lectures and workshops discussing the why of technology in the environmental business and the how of implementing it to your company’s advantage. There will be elegant solutions to the thorny problems your business faces daily. There will be companies—both new and established—that will show you how their services will improve your services and make your clients happy and they will do that by reducing your costs with time saving software and smart hardware.

Come join us at the EnviroTech Summit.

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