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MIT Technology Review

Ransomware hackers hit nearly two dozen Texas cities

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The Texas State CapitolThe Texas State Capitol

In what looks like a highly coordinated cyberattack, approximately 23 cities and government agencies in Texas have been hit by hackers who held the captured computer systems ransom, Texas authorities said this week.

The ransomware incidents are yet another reminder that American cities are ill equipped to defend themselves in cyberspace. A May 2019 study found over 169 instances of ransomware infecting state and local governments since 2013. 

Same but different: Dozens of US cities have been hit by ransomware this year. What makes the Texas attacks unique is their size and coordination. State authorities say that one single actor is likely responsible for all the incidents. If true, this is unlike any hacking campaign seen before.

The malware used in the attack was reported to be Sodinokibi, according to ZDNet. The creators had become one of the dominant ransomware operations online, reportedly pulling in over $2 billion in payments, before shutting down their operation in June in what the malware creators called “a well-deserved retirement.”

StateScoop reported that the malware used in Texas may be the Ryuk ransomware, a strain that’s been found in a host of recent attacks on American cities.

A national problem: In the last five years, it’s become common for American cities to get hit with ransomware. Baltimore was infected this year at a recovery cost of $10 million. A small Florida city paid $460,000 in ransom after an infection in June.

The Texas city of Borger is the only one so far to publicly say it was a victim of this latest wave of attacks. The state and other towns are otherwise keeping quiet. A Texas official told NPR he was “not aware” of any cities paying the ransom this time around.

Who pays? That May 2019 study of ransomware by the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future found that about 17% of state and local governments attacked end up paying the ransom. That number is actually considerably lower than what other organizations found: a 2019 report from CyberEdge found that 45% of organizations pay ransom, a rise from 38.7% in 2018.

The FBI recommends against paying ransom. And last month, the United States Conference of Mayors passed a resolution against paying such extortionists. 

But the fact is that when an organization is hacked and has bad or nonexistent backups, paying ransom becomes an attractive option. The downside is that you are essentially funding the criminal gang behind the operation.