ransomware in cities


How smart cities can rise up against ransomware

We live in a world where cities are racing to become “smarter.” As technology advances, local, state and federal governments are looking to modernize and integrate their systems. Yet while a more-connected world could help us live more efficiently, safely and securely than ever before, it also poses new challenges to cybersecurity and privacy.

Earlier this summer, Baltimore was hit by a ransomware attack infecting the city government's computers, with the hacker demanding 13 bitcoin in exchange for encrypted files. Six weeks post-attack, city officials were still unable to process payments or even respond to emails. Similar patterns have played out in cities, states and provinces around the world -- a tell-tale sign that governments around the world are under threat and must improve their cybersecurity posture.

Trending: Ransomware attacks on municipalities

Baltimore isn’t the only city dealing with the devastating effects of citywide cyberattacks. On May 21, a virus infected Philadelphia’s online court system. It appears that malware was discovered on a limited number of computers, but the entire court system was shut down as a precaution. This resulted in network access grinding to a standstill, blocking anyone from filing documents electronically, sending people to physical court rooms, preventing others from signing up for jury duty and reducing the hours that documents could be accepted. Four weeks later, Philadelphia was still working to resolve the issue.

According to a report by Recorded Future, American governments, particularly cities, states, law enforcement agencies and schools, are being increasingly targeted by ransomware, with at least 21 attacks so far this year. But why? As many private-sector organizations increase their defenses against ransomware attacks, cybercriminals have found convenient targets in local municipalities whose defenses are weaker. On top of this, cities are racing to deploy more digital services. From the increasing installation of new internet-of-things devices to the continued development of artificial intelligence and machine learning applications, these technological advances create a larger attack surface for cybercriminals to exploit.

The impact of ransomware on cities

When cyberattacks like ransomware strike government entities and critical infrastructure, the negative impacts ultimately trickle down to the citizens. For example, the Philadelphia court system shutdown has caused severe strife for residents attempting to file for foreclosure postponement. Due to the outage, postponement filings may have become lost potentially forcing people from their homes.

Now imagine what would happen if a city's payroll system fell victim to a cyberattack, and it was suddenly unable to pay city employees. If subway operators in New York won't work without pay, public transportation systems will be severely disrupted. For these reasons, it’s vital that critical infrastructure stakeholders take greater precautions they move systems online and build smart cities.

Rise up against ransomware

So, what can critical infrastructure stakeholders do to better anticipate and protect themselves from cyberattacks? One of the most powerful tactics to stay protected is to learn from the past. Taking a step back and analyzing large-scale attacks like WannaCry and NotPetya show that the most damage is caused by fast-moving, automated threats. In order to properly fight the growing threat of ransomware against local, state and federal governments, critical infrastructure leaders must have a clear understanding of how cybercriminals are exploiting these systems.

Practicing the basics when it comes to cybersecurity hygiene can also be more effective than one might think when it comes to protecting against ransomware. It is critical that IoT devices are secure before integrating them into critical infrastructure systems. Manufacturers must issue regular software updates and build their devices with security top-of-mind even when under pressure to move new products into production. When security measures are overlooked, malicious actors fain a new avenue to exploit. Likewise, critical infrastructure leaders must install software updates as soon as they become available to make sure they are protected from the latest vulnerabilities. Because ransomware is constantly evolving, it is vital to keep up with cybersecurity best practices.

Additionally, stakeholders should embrace departmentalization, or separating their systems from each other. This is the most reliable method for protecting individual systems itself and ensuring attacks don't spread throughout the organization. Practicing proper device labeling and patch management helps stakeholders proactively learn about their networks and gain increased visibility into them. By understanding the ins and outs of the city network, critical infrastructure stakeholders can create a strategic plan to prevent and effectively respond to evolving cyberattacks.

As cities continue to digitize, it’s important they consider all the devices on their networks and anticipate how a cybercriminal could exploit their technology. By proactively analyzing the security of any IoT device that is deployed into a smart city, critical infrastructure leaders can develop a plan of action to thwart attacks, even as ransomware attacks spread to corporate networks, hospitals and entire cities. It’s firmly the responsibility of these stakeholders to ensure that they’ve done their research and created a solid line of defense in order to protect the livelihood of all citizens.

After all, if we can learn to protect our cities from ransomware, then we can also learn to protect our broader global infrastructure as well.

About the Authors

Jeff Davis is a VP with BlackBerry.

Scott Scheferman is a VP with BlackBerry.


  • Records management: Look beyond the NARA mandates

    Pandemic tests electronic records management

    Between the rush enable more virtual collaboration, stalled digitization of archived records and managing records that reside in datasets, records management executives are sorting through new challenges.

  • boy learning at home (Travelpixs/Shutterstock.com)

    Tucson’s community wireless bridges the digital divide

    The city built cell sites at government-owned facilities such as fire departments and libraries that were already connected to Tucson’s existing fiber backbone.

Stay Connected