City officials worked around the clock Friday to get things up and running again after a ransomware cyberattack that hobbled the city of Atlanta’s computer network last week.
The city’s information security team noticed that something was amiss with the city’s server about 5:40 a.m. Thursday and began an investigation. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said they are working to get to the bottom of the problem, but she asked people to be patient.
“What we want to make sure of is that we aren’t putting a Band-Aid on a gaping hole and that we are taking the appropriate steps to assess where we are and also to address the issues that have arisen,” she said at a news conference Friday.
The attack included the encryption of some city data and caused outages for numerous city applications, officials said. But it did not affect police and fire emergency response systems, water supply safety or Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, they said.
Bottoms said there is no evidence that any personal information has been compromised, but she urged city employees, residents and others whose data may be in the city’s system to monitor their bank accounts and to take proactive steps to protect their personal data.
Acting Chief Information Officer Daphne Rackley said the city was still in “deep investigation and incident management mode” and that scans were still being run to determine the full extent of the attack. Many of the city’s systems were taken offline as a precaution, and Rackley said she couldn’t give a definitive timeline for when she expected things to return to normal.
The airport shut down its Wi-Fi network and the systems that provide flight information and security checkpoint wait times on its website “out of an abundance of caution,” spokesman Reese McCranie said in a phone interview Friday.
The city worked with federal agencies, including the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as private sector partners, to fix the problem, Bottoms said.
Mark Ray, a former FBI cybersecurity investigator who’s now managing director and head of digital investigations for Nardello & Co., said the agency’s primary goals are to stop an attack and find out who’s responsible.
The agency’s first step would be to give practical advice such as isolating the affected systems, preserving and protecting unaffected systems by taking them offline, as well as making sure backups are preserved and secure. Next, the FBI would want to get a sample of the ransomware because it may already have intelligence on that particular malware that could help stop it or it may have a decryption key from a previous attack.
When asked whether the city would pay the ransom demanded, the mayor said the city would seek guidance from federal authorities on the best course of action.
The FBI will never advocate paying ransom, Ray said. There are a variety of reasons for that, including: There’s no guarantee the ransomware owner will actually provide decryption after being paid, an organization’s willingness to pay can make it a target for future attacks, and sometimes payment results in the unlocking of part of a system but then more money is demanded to unlock more of the system.
But if an organization chooses not to pay ransom and if there is no available decryption key, “the alternative is, literally, to slash and burn the environments that have been infected,” Ray said. “That’s where good backups are critical.”
Ransomware exploits known software vulnerabilities, and often organizations that fall victim to such attacks haven’t done a thorough job of patching systems regularly, he said.
Municipalities often struggle with basic software updates and patching because they are frequently short on resources, said Ryan Kalember, senior vice president of cybersecurity strategy at the security company Proofpoint.
The Atlanta attack bears the hallmarks of the SamSam ransomware, and what the city’s information security team likely saw was something trying to log on from outside the organization, he said.
Unlike most ransomware, which accesses a network when someone clicks on link in a phishing email, SamSam indiscriminately searches the internet for vulnerable servers, Kalember said. Once it finds a foothold – often by exploiting a weak password or one that doesn’t get changed often – it gets inside a system and starts to spread.
If it is SamSam, there may be a bit of good news because it typically encrypts the information in place and demands a ransom to restore access to it rather than stealing the information, Kalember said.
“It’s a wakeup call and it’s not ultimately that harmful so there’s a clear silver lining for municipalities” because it could motivate the city to put resources and political will behind making its networks more secure, he said.
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