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Nine government tech stories that made 2020

Government IT leaders have known for years that the mainframes, data centers and tangled web of applications they oversee were in dire need of increased attention and funding. Now, nine months into a pandemic, everyone knows it.

The public turned to government in record numbers this year for unemployment assistance, health care and guidance on how to navigate the health crisis. And often, government came up short. Years of neglect and technical debt were exposed, and lawmakers and senior government officials who’d been slow to grasp the importance of technology have been forced to reckon with its role as the backbone of a growing number of services.

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More than ever before, policymakers realized technology’s importance

Governments rallied technology SWAT teams, states rushed out upgrades to systems that were already decades behind the times and state workers who weren’t traditionally involved in the technological workings of government business became more engaged in cybersecurity practices as they worked from home. The biggest takeaway for government IT in 2020 is that the role of chief information officers has been cemented as essential. As one CIO put it: “We were not only at the table but chairing the meetings.”

Whether because they were stuck at home or enraptured by hourly updates on the health crisis, members of the public, too, became more engaged with government through the use of technology. The pandemic introduced innumerable changes to how government operates, including remote work and faster timelines on delivering services. CIOs said they expect many of these changes to stick.

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Technology was used to undermine democracy, again

Misinformation and disinformation were increasingly widespread on social media and other online platforms in the months leading up to the November election. These ranged from Facebook pages stoking the QAnon conspiracy theory to a robocall, allegedly placed by a pair of right-wing scam artists, that used racist tropes to discourage Black voters in Michigan and other states from casting ballots by mail. Some well-intentioned efforts also confused matters, such as when the Center for Voter Information, a nonprofit group, sent more than 2 million absentee ballot applications, many of which included return envelopes addressed to incorrect election offices. States’ secretary of state offices fought back with education campaigns that encouraged people to be skeptical of all information they read online and only to seek critical information about the voting process from official sources. And though the election itself was described by bipartisan groups of federal, state and local officials as “the most secure in American history,” the weeks since have been consumed by President Donald Trump’s evidence-free attempts to overturn his loss by citing volumes of baseless conspiracy theories that have resulted in election workers being harassed and threatened.

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Florida reorganized its IT shop, again

While most states’ IT organizations continue to evolve, perhaps with occasional setbacks, Florida appears stuck in a pattern of rebooting its technology governance every few years. This year brought yet another IT reorganization — Florida’s fourth in 15 years — and a new chief information officer. In August, Gov. Ron DeSantis chose a political ally, state Rep. James Grant, to head up the Florida Digital Service, which is modeled after the federal division of the same name.

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911’s importance and vulnerability were placed in the spotlight

The nation’s 911 systems have long held a critical role as the primary communication channel between the public and first responders like police, fire and emergency medical services, but the technology and those who operate it from the country’s thousands of public safety answering points gained greater prominence this year. The pandemic arrived in the middle of a national upgrade to next-generation 911, a project converting analog communication systems to digital ones. This upgrade exposes 911 to “a very, very broad attack surface,” experts warned. And as with many other government services, some 911 upgrade projects — and even cybersecurity assessments — have been sidelined in anticipation of budget shortfalls. A 911 outage in September that affected 14 states, caused by a networking glitch at the company Intrado, underscored the constant possibility of further disruptions to the nation’s primary emergency communications channel.

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Ransomware tactics morphed — and schools took a drubbing

Despite a brief decline in the number of reported attacks after the pandemic began, many attacks have persisted, with ransomware groups devising new ways to breach systems and new techniques for coercing payments. The group known as DoppelPaymer started threatening to post stolen files online, realizing that in many cases a breach of privacy could be more damaging to public-sector organizations than merely the loss of their data. Ransom amounts began hitting new records, such as when the University of California, San Francisco paid its ransomers $1.14 million in June. Education institutions have been hit hard, with one cybersecurity analyst noting that K-12 districts are an especially “easy target” for ransomware attacks. As incidents have continued into the fall, members of Congress have started urging the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to do more to assist public schools.

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Two tech giants joined forces to fight COVID-19

When two of the largest technology companies in the world decide to put aside their differences and work together, it’s often a sign that things are not going well in the world. The cooperation between Apple and Google to develop a contact-tracing platform that could be widely adopted quickly overshadowed other contact-tracing efforts, including those by government and private industry alike. The jointly developed Exposure Notifications platform, which has since become a standard feature of both iOS and Android operating systems, has been adopted by more than 20 states and the District of Columbia.

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