Cyberattacks target government of Alberta websites

Every day, hundreds of attacks are launched against the government's 200 websites. Take a peek inside the office that tries to keep those sites, and the confidential information they hold, safe.

"They start to think like a hacker and what a hacker would do to protect against those kinds of threats"

Michael Crerar (left), Director of Security Policy for the Government of Alberta monitors threats to government websites. (CBC)

Alberta government websites — which hold personal information about everything from protection of children at risk to driver's licences — are under constant threat of attack, according to the office tasked with keeping them safe.

"On average, this year we have about 500 different attacks every day going on the Alberta government websites," says Michael Crerar, director of Security Policy and Planning with Service Alberta.

The Government of Alberta hosts about 200 government and agency websites, which provide information on programs and also store personal information from residents in databases.

To keep those pages online, around-the-clock security operations are run from an office in downtown Edmonton, where cyber-security officers monitor and thwart attempted hacks from around the globe. The attacks are preempted, Crerar said, by automated systems and by officers watching trends and events.

"We're definitely seeing more attacks and they're becoming more complicated, so our defences have to become more complicated," he said. 

Crerar said the methods used by those attacking the sites are constantly evolving. As such, security officers have learned to adapt quickly.

"They start to think like a hacker and what a hacker would do to protect against those kinds of threats."

Two large screens in the centre of the security room chart activities from countries from where attempted attacks originate.The chart also lists "suspicious countries and suspicious destinations."

The other screen logs government employee workstations with unusual Internet activity, or events such as consecutive failed attempts to log into an account.

Most of the attacks, said Crerar, are launched offshore from places such as China — where it's more difficult to trace the origin of the hack and easier to hide a person's identity.

Attacks typically spike around special days or events such as Canada Day or Thanksgiving Day in the United States. And, of course, during tax season.

Last week, the website of Canada's spy agency CSIS went offline for several hours after a cyberattack shut it down for the third time in two days. No data was stolen or compromised.

The  denial of service attacks came  on the heels of similar attacks a month ago on websites for the Senate, the Justice Department, CSIS and Canada's electronic spy agency, CSEC.

The online group Anonymous claimed responsibility for the earlier attack in protest of recent passing of the government's anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51.

Experts say denial of service attacks do not require expert technological skill or knowledge and they are fairly easy to defend against.