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Secretary of state addresses local chamber forum

When hackers infiltrated the state's website tracking everything from business names to voter registration in February, the political heat intensified to the point Secretary of State Kate Brown dodged lawmakers.

"All anyone wanted to know was when were we going to be back online," Brown told a Chamber of Medford/Jackson County Forum audience Monday at the Rogue Valley Country Club. "They asked this question even before they said hello."

The truth, Brown said, was she was unsure how long it would take.

"I wanted to say tomorrow, I wanted to give them an estimate that we would be up by the end of the week," Brown said. "But I didn't. Until our systems were up and running, we weren't sure when we would have the problem solved. So my answer became 'soon,' and I quit walking the hallways of the Capitol."

Shifting from a paper-based system to an electronic online system poses risks, she said.

"It certainly creates vulnerabilities," Brown said. "When you make information available online, it's not just the customers who can access."

She said the intruders, probably from overseas, breached the website, rendering useless key applications used by thousands for nearly three weeks.

"It felt like three years for me," Brown said.

She said communication with her staff, as well as the website users, became important during the crisis.

"Your staff is just as hungry for answers and for information, and of course they wanted to know when their life was going to get back to normal," Brown said. "Same answer: 'Soon.'"‰"

She said it is important to be upfront, even when there are more unknowns than knowns.

"There is really a huge temptation to delay communication until you have all the answers," Brown said. "Don't do it."

Establishing a culture of trust and openness helps in a time of crisis, she said.

"Nobody wants to give the boss bad news, and let me tell you, I received a lot of bad news during the outage," she said. "The extent of the damage, the cost and the time it would take to repair it. My staff felt like they could come and deliver me the bad news, and as a team we could make informal decisions."

That led to relaunching the Oregon Elections System for Tracking and Reporting, known in house as ORESTAR, without fanfare so that it wouldn't be knocked out by a flood of users.

"By the time the word spread around noon, we had already been able to test the system and it ended up being a success," Brown said. "That is an incident that could've caused serious and lasting damage to any organization."

She said new security measures have been implemented, and information passed along to other states to prevent similar occurrences.

"This challenge has made me stronger," Brown said. "And made my skin a lot thicker."

Technology continues to have its pluses, she said.

She said since online voter registration began in 2010, more than 300,000 have registered or updated their voter registration.

"People assume it's mostly the younger generation," Brown said. "I asked how many folks over the age of 90 actually use it, and we've had over 800 voters over the age of 90 use the online registration."

The Corporation Division staff has declined to 35 from 65 over the past 20 years, she said.

"I'd like to say it goes back to business," she said. "But your budget Ways and Means co-chairs have taken it for the general fund."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, friend him on Facebook and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/EconomicEdge.

Secretary of state addresses local chamber forum