Many government services in Atlanta, Georgia, a major metropolitan US city, were brought to a halt this week. Ransomware appeared on municipal computers, urging a payment of $51,000 in equivalent bitcoin, otherwise vital city functions would be shut down. The hackers made good on their threat, and services all over the city were impacted, including police. Into the weekend, the issue has not yet been resolved.
Atlanta Ransomware Attackers Demand Bitcoin
National Broadcast Corporation (NBC) television Atlanta, Georgia affiliate, 11 Alive, broke the story early Thursday morning: The city of Atlanta’s computers are being held hostage. The anchors announced police departments, courts, and just about every single department was impacted by the ongoing cyber attack. The attacker(s) demanded the curious sum of $51,000 in the equivalent of bitcoin as ransom.
At 5:30am city employees received an official email about an issue critical enough to order computers powered down and unplugged from the wall. At roughly the same time, employees were also seeing a demand for bitcoin on their screens. To be able to get back into their systems, they’d have to pay. Initially the city claimed it to be a computer outage, but leaks from various departments told another story to local media. All indications pointed to what’s known as a ransomware attack.
It’s not the first for a US city: Sarasota, Florida (a demand for 33 million USD was avoided by an alert worker who yanked cords from the wall); Leeds, Alabama (which paid upwards of $12,000 to get back into their computers); Hinesville, Georgia; Farmington, New Mexico (still do not have access to their computers); Englewood, Colorado (shut down the entire city’s computer infrastructure).
Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) teams have taken up the case. The seriousness of the situation is evidenced by a rumor the city would shut down government offices the following business day if need be. Perhaps the most maddening aspect of the whole affair was not knowing the extent of the compromise. The city’s famous international airport, evidently, wasn’t impacted. Police, however, were sent back two decades technologically, resorting to writing reports and filing them by hand (it seems this effort was taken out of caution rather than due to the hack).
Still Nothing Definitive
By mid-afternoon, city water customers were not allowed to pay water bills online, and so local government asked users to be particularly proactive in case personal data was stolen. City workers openly worried about timesheets and pay, which is all done via computer. Officials assured everyone would be paid, even if physical checks must be cut. “We don’t know the extent of the attack,” announced mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. She urged patience, “We want to make sure we don’t put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. We don’t know the extent or if anyone’s personal data or bank accounts will be compromised. All of us are subject to this attack.”
And while there is never a good time to have such an attack, it does come at a particularly touchy moment for Atlanta. It’s said to be on the short list for an Amazon facility, it’s set to host March Madness basketball events, and a giant gun control rally was scheduled for Saturday.
Despite multiple requests, the mayor has refused to answer whether the city will pay the bitcoin ransom.
Should the city pay a ransom? Let us know in the comments!
Images via Pixabay, Twitter, NBC.
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Author: C. Edward Kelso