It has become clear in recent years that local governments, its agencies, and other large organizations are the targets of hackers launching ransomware. It starts with a suspicious email that is opened, but soon the hackers have encrypted files and locked down the computer networks of townships, local governments, law enforcement, and even hospitals. Frequently, the only way to regain control of the computer system is to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in Bitcoin, which is difficult to trace back to the criminals.
The year 2019 saw upwards of 140 such attacks involving local government, health providers, municipal organizations like schools and other public entities. This number is up 65% from 2018 when there 85 documented attacks. Considering the embarrassment some agencies will feel, these numbers are likely lower than the actual numbers. Moreover, there is, unfortunately, no guarantee that the hackers will not attack the same victims again.
These criminals can cripple systems, but the information they control is also sensitive. For example:
- Hospitals: One healthcare system in Alabama could not accept patients nor look up information because of ransomware, plus it enabled the hackers’ control of sensitive medical information of the patients.
- Police: Limited or no computer access means that police do have accurate information on who is available to handle emergency calls.
- Municipalities: They cannot operate or pay staff.
Paying is cheaper than fighting
Often the hackers pick a ransom price that is less than hiring the staff and resources to combat the attack – Baltimore’s mayor, for example, refused to pay a $76,000 ransom. That decision will cost taxpayers an estimated $18.2 million to adequately protect the city and fix the problems caused.
Many hackers live abroad
Usually, this kind of behavior would lead to a criminal trial if the perpetrators are caught. But local, state and federal entities face attackers who live places where there is no extradition. These criminals may secretly steal data for weeks before launching a ransomware attack to cover up their real objective of disrupting an election or other important municipal or gathering confidential information.
New protocols are needed
One key to fighting this scourge is to educate employees at public entities about the importance of cybersecurity. While additional technology resources are essential, it is also necessary to update regulations and handbooks on how to recognize and effectively address these new tech threats.