cyber threats in the heartlandThe Great Plains have romanced explorers and broken the hearts of homesteaders for generations. For the Conestoga wagons traversing the Oregon Trail, the Great Plains were a necessary misery to endure as they headed toward the riches of the west, packed with drought, hostile encounters, and unforgiving terrain.

The view of the Plains today as a desolate, boring backwater has endured among some. But, this is an inaccurate depiction, for this is a land of surprisingly rugged beauty, rich history, and deep-rooted culture.

I’ve spent a lot of time crisscrossing the Plains from the Dakotas to Kansas and have come to appreciate the people and places that make America’s breadbasket unique. I once gave a talk at a library in Ness City, Kansas and afterward was presented with a ceremonial piece of barbed wire as a token of appreciation. It was also a tip of the hat to the place where barbed wire was invented.

Barbed wire keeps the Plains from being an endless, borderless buffet for cattle, keeping the threats of cars and coyotes contained. But, barbed wire’s role as a firewall is limited. It can’t keep viral threats from sweeping through the Plains. The deadly 1918 the Spanish flu epidemic had its origins somewhere on a rural Kansas farm in Haskell County where horses, pigs, birds, and humans all lived in relatively primitive Petri-dish proximity. Once “hatched” the virus rode the coattails of World War I around the globe. And, today, barbed wire can’t deter cyber threats, which are just as real in the Plains as they are in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.

Cyber threats without boundaries

Ed Knott is the president of Applied Connective Technologies in Albion, Nebraska, which manages IT and systems throughout rural Nebraska and Iowa. Albion, population 1,599, is a small outpost on the Nebraska Plains in the center of the state, but the rural location doesn’t deter cyber threats.

In my opinion, bad actors don’t discriminate based on geography. Rural, urban … the threat is real and similar regardless of your proximity to large populations. I guess that is part of the beauty of being a cyber-criminal, there aren’t any boundaries,” Knott says.

Applied Connective serves the small towns that dot the Nebraska prairie, where the Sandhills offer a rugged contrast to the surrounding farm fields. In many cases, the very qualities that make the Plains breathtaking in their vastness and endless horizons are the same ones that make virtual security complicated.

Geographic challenges

“The number one unique challenge facing our clients and our MSP offering historically has been quality and capacity of bandwidth,” Knott says, adding that the low population density complicates the cost-benefit analysis for ISPs to build out to the rural areas, making it tougher to implement cloud-based solutions, including crucial BDR.

That is slowly changing by way of more local ISPs (such as Great Plains Communications, Eagle Communications, Stealth Broadband) undertaking build-outs in the communities we serve,” Knott says.

Of course, the geography itself presents challenges for Knott and his staff of 20. At any given time, they have 10 service vehicles on the road, covering a four or five-hour radius from Albion

“On the IT side of our MSP, we do perform a great deal of work remotely, but our offering and model requires a significant on-site presence as well,” Knott says, adding that finding the retaining the techs necessary to do the work isn’t easy.

Targets big and small

Down in Kansas, where the vast sagebrush-coated Plains sweep in a wide arc from Liberal and Dodge City in the south to Goodland in the north, Jason Penka, CEO of Tech Junkies, an MSP in Hays, Kansas, deals with many of the same issues Knott is confronting. Population, a declining, aging, and sparse one in western Kansas, causes an MSP to have to constantly be creative and offer scalable solutions based on what the density can support.

The vastness of the Plains doesn’t negate the need for security, though. Targets in the Plains are large and small. Russian hackers earlier this year attempted to infiltrate the system of Wolf Creek Nuclear Power Plant in bucolic Burlington, Kansas in the state’s southeast. While in Nebraska, hackers recently took over the pages of radio stations KTCH-FM and KCTY-AM in Wayne, where they dispense information in the Sandhills.

Handshakes and education

As much as patches and firewalls can deter bad actors, trust can let them in.

I once attended a meeting in Hutchinson, Kansas.

“I’ll have the paperwork drawn up,” I said at the end, excited about the way the meeting had gone.

“We do business on a handshake out here,” I was told in return.

And, it’s that deeply trusting nature embedded in life on the Plains that can actually make the area more prone to security threats.

More rural areas are more trusting. I shake someone’s hand to make a deal. Not everyone else in the world operates that way, and that is where people end up getting burned,” says  Penka.

Because of the trust the Plains residents hold, Penka finds one of the biggest jobs of a rural MSP isn’t technical at all, it’s educational.

“We do need to ensure that we are educating our clients and prospects and educate them in a way that is not fear-based. They have to have the same security in place that someone in New Jersey has, to a hacker they are just another number. So we have focused on bringing education to people,” Penka says, adding that when a cybersecurity issue occurs in a more urban area, there tends to be more focus and talk about it.

Phishing and beyond

A lot of the biggest security breaches Penka has seen in Kansas have been at government offices. Penka points out that Kansas has 105 counties, “which means 105 county seats, 105 sheriffs, judges, and county government entities that are a little slower to adapt. They don’t have internal IT, and a lot of times they just aren’t aware,” Penka says of the cyber dangers.

“There have been some bigger hacks, phishing scams where they have wired payroll somewhere, and ransomware where they didn’t have backup,” Penka says, adding that many of these rural county offices are relying on sparse tech budgets and there’s a bit of an educational gap that an MSP can help close.

Spear phishing is perhaps the biggest security problem Penka encounters where a bad actor really “cases” a particular person online and then taps into that “Plains trust” to induce a wire transfer, set the stage for a cryptojacking attack, or get someone to download something they shouldn’t. Sometimes the spear phising is quite well planned.

“We have caught them for most of our clients, but we have seen those attacks be very successful with people who are not our clients,” Penka says.

In the feedlots, agri-business, and oil industry on the Plains, domestic and international criminals find the area ripe for attack.

“Realistically when we break it down, technology is the same across any industry. It is just the way we are deploying it out here,” Penka says. Creative deployments are a necessity in the one-stoplight towns on the Kansas prairie where the winds blow and the barbed wire helps keep the cattle, but not the viruses, at bay.


Photos: Courtesy of Kevin Williams

Kevin Williams

Posted by Kevin Williams

Kevin Williams is a journalist based in Ohio. Williams has written for a variety of publications including the Washington Post, New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic and others. He first wrote about the online world in its nascent stages for the now defunct “Online Access” Magazine in the mid-90s.

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