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Consequences of ransomware heat up in Atlanta

For the modern criminal, messy hold ups and struggling with unwilling hostages are relics of the pre-digital heists of the past. The target for a new breed of criminal is data; holding a company or organization hostage electronically is becoming the go-to tactic.

Recently, Atlanta was hit by the SamSam ransomware, exploiting a vulnerability that crippled a large portion of the city’s online systems. Citywide services came to a grinding halt. More than a third of Atlanta’s 424 necessary programs were knocked offline or partially disabled, and nearly a third of those were “mission critical” like the courts and the police. Weeks later, reports revealed that years of video evidence gathered by Atlanta police was lost during the ransomware attack and unrecoverable.

The attack locked up the city’s files with a nearly unbreakable encryption. Only the attackers held the key to unlocking them, and they demanded nearly $55,000 worth of bitcoin ransom for it, which was never paid. In the time between the attack and the payment deadline, the payment portal was closed by the attacker, but this wasn’t a win for the city. Far from it.

Avoiding paying the ransom was a small success in light of the damage caused by the ripple effect of services outages.  Reports show the costs of dealing with the aftermath will balloon into the millions. For any organization, this is unacceptable, but it is particularly bad for a municipality that will spend tax dollars on the cleanup.

With all the warning and knowledge IT managers have, they know it is only a matter of time before another attack occurs. Government agencies must have a plan in place for when they inevitably get hit. Prevention plans aren’t enough. Pre-planning is needed so that when trouble strikes, a strategy  immediately  goes into effect to ensure services aren’t disrupted and critical activities can carry on as needed.

According to Gartner, downtime can cost an organization as much as $540,000 per hour. It’s too much to risk -- financial stability, customer loyalty, company valuation, reputation and employee morale -- to leave the most precious assets (data and applications) unprotected against unplanned disruptions.

For organizations to bounce back and avoid downtime they must be prepared for disruption instead of surprised by it. As cliché as it has become at this point, it's still true: It’s not whether a cyberattack will occur, but when. So how can cities ensure they are prepared for the inevitable?

Agencies must create full IT resilience plans, including continuous data protection for backup, disaster recovery and cloud mobility to withstand both planned and unplanned disruptions.

Continuous data protection, which automatically backs up enterprise data in real time, makes recovery easier, faster and more holistic. Most important, it meets today’s IT manager's needs and provides real-time protections against the kind of attacks that brought down Atlanta’s systems. Unlike legacy backup technology that leaves major gaps between snapshots, it gives agencies the ability to recover all data from just seconds before an attack occurs. This will ensure agency systems will always be available and protected, even in the face of today’s cyber attacks.  

Protection against lurking malware and cyber hackers also requires data protection tools. Agencies must invest in continuous data replication solutions with automated recovery to achieve continuous availability. As part of an overall resilience strategy, agencies also need tools that provide workload mobility and multicloud agility so that data and applications to be moved between on-premises and any cloud for optimized recovery.

By strategically investing in continuous data protection for continuous availability, agencies can reach a point where they are protected against any disruption -- planned or unplanned -- and always on, available and protected 100 percent of the time.

As troubling as incidents like the Atlanta ransomware attack are, they also give agencies an opportunity to take a close look at their own vulnerabilities and leverage different tools and services available. In this case, if Atlanta had continuous data protection capabilities, they could have, within seconds, recovered data flies that are critical to the city’s day-to-day functions.

Criminals rarely call ahead,  and we know they are growing increasingly sophisticated. However, if agencies  make detailed plans for recovery and increase their ability to retrieve the latest data for short- and long-term resilience, they can shield themselves from the significant damage and after effects that have become the costliest consequences of these events. Cyber attacks will continue to plague agencies,  but the ultimate goal is no data loss, no downtime and no interruptions to service delivery.

About the Author

Caroline Seymour is director of product marketing at Zerto.


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