BELTON — The Bell County Commissioners Court voted to continue the upgrading of the county’s phone system. The unanimous vote to purchase a $43,000 firewall package — software that establishes a barrier between a secure network and an unsecured network — was cast at the commissioners’ Monday meeting.

Jim Chandler, director of Bell County’s Technology Service Department, told commissioners that the firewall was “one of several steps that have been taken in recent months to harden the phone system.”

“It puts devices on the perimeter of the phone system,” Chandler said. “If there’s an attack, it shuts devices down before the intrusion can spread.”

Systems attacked

The decision to adopt additional anti-intrusion measures came after Bell County’s phone systems were penetrated by an unknown number of hackers on two separate occasions last year. The first attack, which started Nov. 30, targeted a weak password on an extension in the Road and Bridge Department. Cracking the four-digit password gave the hacker, or hackers, access to the phone’s automated menu system and allowed them to route calls to the Caribbean island nation of Grenada through Bell County’s switchboard.

At a Jan. 13 meeting, Chandler told the commissioners that before the attack, many county employees used their phone extensions as system passwords.

“If a phone number was 933-5000 the password was 5000,” Chandler said at the time. After the attack, an auto-update program was implemented that required county employees to strengthen their phone system passwords.

By exploiting this weakness, the hackers were able to place outgoing calls that appeared to be coming from, and were billed to, Bell County. The attack went on until the morning of Dec. 2 and resulted in a $27,000 phone bill.

On Friday, Dec. 13, a second intrusion into the county phone system was made. While it remains unclear if the attacks were related, the Nov. 30 and Dec. 13 attacks employed similar methodology.

The new security features the county has been considering for its phone systems have ranged from mildly intrusive — behind the scenes processes that restructured how the county addresses long distance access — to a plan that would create one single listed phone number for Bell County.

The single phone number plan, which technology department staff outlined at the January briefing, would have required anyone wishing to speak to a county department to go through multiple automated menus, or auto attendants as they are known in the telecommunications industry.

The idea of installing what Chandler estimated could be up to “six or seven menus” on the county phone system before callers could speak to an employee was not warmly received by commissioners.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Richard Cortese said the disdain for phone menus, or “auto attendants,” is fairly universal.

“We all hate them. We don’t want to put them out there if we hate them.”

The resistance to automated menus led to the abandonment of the single phone number plan.

Other action

In other business, the commissioners approved multiple agreements relating to services at the Bell County Central Jail. Time Warner Cable asked for, and received, permission to update wiring for inmate phone services. The service will not cost the county any money.

The commissioners also approved an agreement with Keefe Commissary Network to provide accounting services for inmate trust accounts at the jail.

The commissioners also voted to spend $48,000 to replace a low pressure gas meter at the jail and approved the purchase of a Dodge Charger for the sheriff’s department.

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