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The state of ransomware ...

The state of ransomware ...

The recent cyberattack on the city of New Orleans is another sobering example of how vulnerable we are as a nation to cyber criminals. Even for cities like New Orleans, which was prepared for such an attack, there is an incredible amount of time and effort and cost that goes into getting a city back up on its feet after such an incident.

Following the New Orleans attack, a report on the State of Ransomware in the U.S., created by cybersecurity research firm Emsisoft, was rushed to be released ahead of its original Jan. 1 2020 release date because, as researchers pointed out, the New Orleans incident “elevates the ransomware threat to crisis level. Governments must act immediately to improve their security and mitigate risks. If they do not, it is likely that similar incidents will also result in the extremely sensitive information which governments hold being stolen and leaked.”

By releasing the report early, the company hopes it will help “kickstart discussions and enable solutions to be found sooner rather than later. Those solutions are desperately needed.”

Looking at the numbers on ransomware, they are pretty mind numbing, as in 2019 the U.S. was hit by “an unprecedented and unrelenting barrage of ransomware attacks that impacted at least 966 government agencies, educational establishments and healthcare providers at a potential cost in excess of $7.5 billion,” according to Emsisoft.

The impacted organizations included:
• 113 state and municipal governments and agencies;
• 764 healthcare providers; and
• 89 universities, colleges and school districts, with operations at up to 1,233 individual schools potentially affected.

The incidents were not simply expensive inconveniences, according to the report, which noted that the disruption they caused put people's health, safety and lives at risk. For example:
• Emergency patients had to be redirected to other hospitals;
• Medical records were inaccessible and, in some cases, permanently lost;
• Surgical procedures were canceled, tests were postponed and admissions halted;
• 911 services were interrupted;
• Dispatch centres had to rely on printed maps and paper logs to keep track of emergency responders in the field;
• Police were locked out of background check systems and unable to access details about criminal histories or active warrants;
• Surveillance systems went offline;
• Badge scanners and building access systems ceased to work;
• Jail doors could not be remotely opened; and
• Schools could not access data about students' medications or allergies.

“The fact that there were no confirmed ransomware-related deaths in 2019 is simply due to good luck, and that luck may not continue into 2020,” Emsisoft CTO Fabian Wosar said in the report. “Governments and the health and education sectors must do better. ”

Other effects of the incidents included:
• Property transactions were halted;
• Utility bills could not be issued;
• Grants to nonprofits were delayed by months;
• Websites went offline;
• Online payment portals were inaccessible;
• Email and phone systems ceased to work;
• Driver's licenses could not be issued or renewed;
• Payments to vendors were delayed;
• Schools closed;
• Students' grades were lost; and
• Tax payment deadlines had to be extended.

In looking at how unprepared local governments are, a 2019 University of Maryland, Baltimore County research report based on data from a nationwide survey of cybersecurity in U.S. local governments, stated that, “Serious barriers to their practice of cybersecurity include a lack of cybersecurity preparedness within these governments and funding for it,” and that “Local governments as a whole do a poor job of managing their cybersecurity.”

The issues identified included:
• Just over one-third did not know how frequently security incidents occurred, and nearly two-thirds did not know how often their systems were breached;
• Only minorities of local governments reported having a very good or excellent ability to detect, prevent, and recover from events that could adversely affect their systems; and
• Fewer than half of respondents said that they cataloged or counted attacks.

In some cases, governments failed to implement even the most basic of IT best practices, the report noted. For example, Baltimore experienced data loss because data resided only on end-user systems for which there was no backup mechanism in place.

According to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's research, more than 50 percent of governments identified “lack of funding” as a barrier to cybersecurity and this is almost certainly an issue in the education and healthcare sectors, too. “Resolving the problem may simply require that organizations reallocate their existing budgets, or it may require that additional funding be provided either by federal or state government. In either case, it is an issue that must be addressed,” researchers concluded.

While 966 government agencies, educational establishments and healthcare providers were impacted by ransomware in 2019, the report noted that not a single bank disclosed a ransomware incident.

“This is not because banks are not targeted,” researchers noted. “It is because they have better security and so attacks against them are less likely to be successful. If government agencies were simply to adhere to industry-standard best practices — such as ensuring all data is backed up and using multi-factor authentication everywhere that it should be used — that alone would be sufficient to reduce the number of successful attacks, their severity and the disruption that they cause.”

As Wosar pointed out, “2020 need not be a repeat of 2019. Proper levels of investment in people, processes and IT would result in significantly fewer ransomware incidents and those incidents which did occur would be less severe, less disruptive and less costly.”

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