October 9, 2019 By David Bisson 3 min read

A city in Georgia successfully avoided suffering any data loss after experiencing its third ransomware attack of the year.

The city of Cornelia suffered a ransomware attack in the beginning of October. Fortunately, the infection didn’t progress far enough for those responsible to hold Cornelia’s systems for ransom. City officials were successful in accessing the city’s data backups and restoring its IT infrastructure.

City Manager Donald Anderson confirmed to AccessWDUN that the attack did not expose any account information. Even so, he did confirm that the ransomware shut down Cornelia’s computer systems for a day. This outage prevented the city from issuing water bills on a timely basis, as the municipality’s employees had already begun processing the invoices prior to the attack and therefore needed to start over following the infection.

Cornelia wasn’t as lucky earlier in the year when it suffered two other ransomware infections. Both of those security incidents disabled the municipality’s public systems for several days. Responding to these past experiences and this latest attack, city officials decided to authorize the purchase of a new firewall for approximately $30,000 to help defend against digital threats such as ransomware. They also asked the city’s dedicated IT director to make additional recommendations to improve Cornelia’s overall security posture.

The Effects of a Municipal Ransomware Attack

Despite suffering a day of lost productivity, things could have been much worse for Cornelia. One need only travel 70 miles southwest to Atlanta for a glimpse at what could have been.

Back in the spring of 2018, Atlanta suffered a ransomware attack at the hands of SamSam, cryptomalware that, according to the Department of Justice, caused $30 million in losses to U.S. hospitals, municipalities, institutions and other victims.

According to Reuters, the attack affected more than a third of the 424 computer applications used by Atlanta and thus prevented the city government from delivering many public services. For instance, residents were unable to make new water service requests along with hydrant-meter renewals and returns online. Citizens could receive planning services in person, noted CNN, but the SamSam attack made processing times longer. Scoop News Group reported that the ransomware also prevented customers from paying water and sewage bills online, filing for business licenses via computer and using Wi-Fi at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Simultaneously, the attack affected the city’s ability to do its job. Per The New Yorker, city council members reported having lost decades’ worth of correspondence following the attack, thus limiting the information available to them to make important government decisions. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also learned that the attack deleted years of dashcam footage collected by the Atlanta Police Department, data loss that might have compromised an unknown number of DUI cases if an officer’s testimony was insufficient at the time of arrest.

Under Pressure to Not Pay the Ransom

Atlanta’s experience with ransomware, not to mention its multimillion-dollar recovery effort, no doubt factored into the FBI‘s decision to warn U.S. businesses and organizations about cryptomalware and urge them not to meet ransomware attackers’ demands. It’s likely that the U.S. Conference of Mayors also took this attack, among others, into consideration when it resolved to stop meeting threat actors’ ransom demands in the event of an infection.

These developments certainly lower the chances of a city recovering its data should it suffer a ransomware infection, meaning that local governments need to focus on preventing a ransomware attack in the first place.

How to Defend Against a Ransomware Attack

Security professionals can help their organizations defend against a ransomware attack by using an endpoint management tool to provide visibility into IT assets and monitor those devices for suspicious activity. They should also invest in security awareness training for all employees that takes into account how their deployed technology assets work.

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