Local governments are facing a growing threat of cyberattacks and escalating ransom demands, as an attack Baltimore has crippled thousands of computers for a month, reports the Wall Street Journal.
“Ransomware is a pandemic” in the U.S., said FBI agent Joel DeCapua. Hackers are going after larger targets, compared with five years ago, when most ransomware attacks hit home computers.
Municipalities are less prepared than companies due to limited resources and difficulty competing for cybersecurity talent. They are increasingly reliant on technology to deliver city services and some have aging computer systems.
Ransomware attacks often start when an employee opens a link or an attachment in a phishing email. The ransomware blocks files the cyberattackers say they will unlock in return for a payment, typically in bitcoin.
Local governments must decide whether to pay off the hackers to try to limit damage.
Baltimore, which was hit by hackers on May 7, says it won’t pay a $76,000 ransom. A Georgia county said it complied with a $400,000 demand in March.
Governments are less likely than private firms to pay, as officials want the public to see them heeding the FBI’s advice not to pay criminals.
Even if Baltimore had paid the ransom, it still would have incurred major costs to restore systems and boost cyber defenses, said city official Sheryl Goldstein. “There is no guarantee they don’t hack you again and ask for more money,” she said.
The Baltimore hack delayed home sales and prevented the city from issuing water bills. Officials restored computer and email access for some employees late last month.
Hackers often operate overseas, stymieing U.S. law-enforcement authorities.
A federal grand jury in Atlanta indicted two Iranian nationals in December for allegedly hacking into the city of Atlanta’s network in March 2018. Both men remain wanted by the FBI.