PHILIPSBURG--Prime Minister (PM) Silveria Jacobs on Wednesday gave an insight into the enormity of the challenges utilities company GEBE faced in its efforts to recover from last year’s cyber-attack, in which it lost data.
She provided the insight during an urgent public meeting of Parliament on GEBE, in which she indicated that most of the issues being faced by the company did not start with the hack. “The hack mainly exposed them. The situation at GEBE is a culmination of years of challenges, oversight or lack thereof and to some extent, neglect, but assigning blame is not the way forward. Real and meaningful change requires time, effort, understanding and collaboration.”
Currently 90% of the lost records dating back to February 2021, prior to the attack, have now been restored, but Jacobs said GEBE still navigates through largely manual processes.
“This painstaking task requires stringent checks especially for invoicing and billing. The challenge is complex, not just technological, but human and organisational,” Jacobs told Members of Parliament (MPs).
“This recovery is a journey undertaken by a committed internal team supplemented by experts globally. While commendable that we are finally at 90%, GEBE’s response to the crises was not without missteps,” she said.
Rewinding the clock, Jacobs said the scope and severity of the March 2022 cyber-attack surpassed the initial understanding of the company. It affected GEBE’s core administrative functions. She explained that GEBE relies on a Systems Application and Products (SAP) system for its administrative operations; specifically its invoicing and billing are dependent on this. GEBE’s day-to-day business processes, including functions like financial accounting, human resource management, sales and distribution, use this system and it is the platform where departments and functions within GEBE also share data. Jacobs said the hack encrypted data that GEBE lost. “The loss of this data posed a technical challenge for the company and disrupted the trust and operations of the company all of us depend on,” she indicated. “The task of restoration and rebuilding, as daunting as it was, became the priority.”
Previous GEBE management attempted to restore the system and the shareholder was informed that processes were in place to resume billing. “Unfortunately, we learned six months after the hack that the optimism was misplaced. Incorrect bills were distributed, complaints were registered and the company was not making the promised progress.”
She said the shareholder was told at the time that the system was 75% restored, which turned out to be false. “Unfortunately, that was also not accurate. Moreover, NV GEBE had not been meeting its obligations to vendors and one of the largest – Sol – at the time placed a lien on the company’s account due to non-payment of fuel bills. At this point the shareholder put a special representative in charge, and assessments of the situation started.”
The prime minister said while she will not dwell on the past, the situation was much worse than initially feared.
“In September 2022 when the special representative took charge, GEBE was actually billing less than 15% of the customers and the company’s financial situation was dire. The first order of business was improving the financial health of the company. The crisis team could do so by the end of the year. GEBE was not yet out of the woods, though it is stable.”
By February 2023, internal and external expertise was put in place and a manual process was used. “Every record had to be recovered, restored, verified and tested – roughly 43,000 accounts per month. The enormity and the volume of work of a small team at NV GEBE is a testament to their resilience,” she explained.
Early this year Jacobs said GEBE was once again “tested.” She said “thankfully, the activities undertaken by current management to strengthen the [information and communications technology – Ed.] ICT at the company and ensure viable data backups allowed the company to stop an attack in the process. Systems were isolated, checked and, where required, restored within three business days without losing data. That is indeed good progress.”
Jacobs said while the situation at GEBE presently is not perfect, progress is being made. Rectifying issues with persons who paid estimates, incorporated into the initial restoration and billing process, is a priority. Jacobs said GEBE is investing in processes to ensure every customer is rightly billed and every concern is addressed.
At the start of her presentation, she stressed that government had heard the cries of residents and indicated that whenever information is received it is forwarded to management and the Supervisory Board to be looked into.
“The shareholder, the government of St. Maarten, is well aware of the challenges that we face. We are also residents and we are also facing challenges in our homes and we can understand the sentiments of frustration also.”
Jacobs wound down her presentation in Parliament by saying that she recognises that the gravity of the challenges is touching the lives of residents. She said for GEBE to change and improve it requires the faith and support of its stakeholders and she urged customers to continue to support GEBE’s recovery process.
“The journey ahead for GEBE is complex and challenging, but one filled with hope because we are finally on the same page. We are seeing sustainable energy as one of the main ways in which to build our resilience, especially seeing where we are and how often we face natural disasters and the shocks. With understanding, collaboration and a shared vision on the way forward, we can and we will rebuild stronger, smarter and more sustainable than before,” she said.
Following Jacob’s presentation, MPs posed a number of questions on GEBE, including several asking about the company’s present financial status.