Borough's virus blocker screens emails from residents


June 11, 2020

In March, responding to a rise in coronavirus-related cyberattacks, the Haines Borough put in place a filtering system to screen emails containing words like “COVID-19.” The system was effective, screening out countless messages containing malware, but it also screened out a number of messages from Haines residents trying to contact government officials in the midst of a pandemic and budget cycle.

Resident Dawn Drotos raised the issue at Tuesday’s assembly meeting, noting that it has been difficult for people to participate in the budget process because of a number of pandemic-related issues. Drotos said a few of her emails had gone unanswered by borough officials and that she had learned from the borough’s IT consultant Warren Johnson that, in recent months, the borough has been filtering huge numbers of emails.

Yesterday, the system automatically excluded more than 46,000 emails sent to borough addresses, Drotos said. During the past 30 days, the system filtered out 1.17 million.

Interim borough manager and borough clerk Alekka Fullerton said she had heard from a few people that they were having issues sending emails to borough addresses, but she hadn’t realized it was a widespread problem. She estimates a small number of the thousands of emails filtered on a daily basis are from actual Chilkat Valley residents. Most are from hacker accounts.

Fullerton acknowledged that the borough did a poor job letting the public know about the new email filter back in March.

“Obviously, we didn’t do a good enough job getting (the information) out there,” Fullerton said. “We didn’t do a press release, and in hindsight, it would have been a good idea.”

Fullerton said the filter was a necessary step to protect the borough’s online system. Communities throughout the country have seen an increase in cyberattacks since the pandemic began, and having a computer system crash can be costly for a municipality, she said. In 2018, both Valdez and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough had their systems hacked, costing hundreds of thousands to get them online again.

Before the spam filter was put in place, the volume of emails was overwhelming. “We were having to run virus checks continuously,” Fullerton said.

In consultation with Johnson, Fullerton said the borough realized that almost all the spam emails had subject lines or messages related to COVID-19, so it put in place a filter to quarantine these messages.

Borough employees can sort through quarantined emails and individually approve sender addresses, but Fullerton said she’s not sure all staff know how to do this.

The best way for a resident to get their email address put on the approved sender list, a process called “whitelisting,” is to call the borough’s mainline at 766-6400. Once an email address has been whitelisted, the sender should be able to have emails on any subject make it through the borough’s spam filter.


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