Ransomware scams hold cities hostage

a hacker for bitcoin

Ransomware stole all the headlines in 2016 as the particularly nasty malware variant began rearing its ugly head around the world. As if viruses and malware weren’t already bad enough, ransomware added to the misery by holding all the data stored on a particular device hostage. Later, hackers then demanded ransom for its safe return. Yep, 2016 was the year we all had to start worrying about being blackmailed whenever we were on the internet.

Things seemed to quiet down after the original big scores had come and gone, but the threat has always lingered. It was big organizations that were always the most vulnerable. Think hospitals and schools and you’ll have a good idea about what the early victims were like. Unfortunately, ransomware is back in the headlines as it seems another type of major organization is susceptible to ransomware attack: cities.

Florida cities held hostage

It is easy to think of ransomware being some Hollywood type event from something like Netflix’s “Black Mirror.” We do something embarrassing online (or in the episode “Shut Up and Dance,” illegal and morally deplorable) and then the hacker uses that against us to force us to pay money or do something else illegal.

In reality, ransomware is much more benign. There is little worth in targeting individuals with ransomware as A) we don’t have much money and B) most of us don’t have much on our hard drive we’d pay to get back.

Black Mirror ransomware attack
In Black Mirror an individual was targeted by ransomware. This does happen in real life, but it is more usual for large organizations to fall victim to ransomware attacks.

This is why larger systems like schools, hospitals, or now even cities make better targets for ransomware hackers. By blocking access to data on large systems immediately, the hackers put immense pressure on the organization. If a hospital can’t access its admin system, people could die. A school can’t run properly when its systems are down. A city won’t know who is who until it can check its databases.

This final reason is why officials in Lake City, Fla. have just joined officials from Riviera Beach, Florida in handing over a small fortune in Bitcoin to an unknown hacker or group of hackers. They paid $500,000 and $600,000 respectively. The Lake City computer systems were down for two weeks before the officials buckled. While they were down, citizens were unable to make municipal payments online and city employees couldn’t access their email accounts.

If Bitcoin ransoms don’t sound like something taxpayer money should pay for, fear not. According to the Lake City mayor, the city is covered by insurance, which will pay all but $10,000 of the $500,000 ransom.  If you don’t think the city should bow to the will of criminals, you should spare a second to think about Baltimore. Recently, the mayor of Baltimore refused to pay a ransom of around $76,000 and estimates suggest the stance cost the taxpayer around $18 million.

Wrapping up

Ransomware is here now and the cities we live in all have a target on their backs. Welcome to 2019, people. This just got real.

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