Cyberattack turns up the heat on common security problems
The ransomware attack that crippled a New York county again demonstrated the need for investment, regular updates and an enterprisewide approach to security.
A cyberattack on Suffolk County, New York, crippled county services and resulted in the leaking of personal information from hundreds of thousands of its residents late last year.
The hack, which has so far cost the county more than $6 million in recovery expenses according to local reports, prompted Suffolk lawmakers to launch a special legislative committee to investigate its origins.
Among the departments affected was the Traffic and Parking Violation Agency. Its server was compromised by the attack and some residents’ personal information may have been accessed by hackers, county officials said. While systems were down, emergency responders and other services relied on pen and paper.
A forensic investigation issued in December by Palo Alto Networks cited several factors for the cyberattack, including delayed security upgrades and insufficient management. At a December press conference to discuss the investigation’s findings, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said the county’s “existing system fails county government and the taxpayers.”
Many of the issues raised by the forensic report highlight ongoing challenges all state and local governments face as they contend with increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks.
One of the findings blamed Suffolk County’s inability to address the Log4j vulnerability identified by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in 2021, which the investigation found was first exploited by Suffolk County’s hackers that same year.
At the time the Log4j vulnerability was discovered, CISA Director Jen Easterly said in a statement it posed “an unacceptable risk to federal network security.” She not only urged federal agencies to immediately patch their system, but said agencies and organizations “large and small” should “follow the federal government’s lead.”
Bellone said during his press conference that Suffolk County could have followed the federal government’s guidance, but it did not install a $1.4 million hardware update that could have averted the vulnerability. Bellone said in retrospect, he should have “acted more aggressively to address that issue,” although he noted that in June a county committee approved a $700,000 spending request.
Finances are sure to be under the microscope in the legislature’s investigation of the incident, too. In an October statement unveiling the special legislative committee, County Legislator Anthony Piccirillo said it will “determine how taxpayer money earmarked for cybersecurity was spent in prior years.”
And while Bellone said the county has refused to pay the hackers’ $2.5 million ransom demands, the ballooning cost of recovery also carries long-term risk, as financial analysts warned of implications for Suffolk County’s borrowing power. Insurance company Fitch Ratings said in an October note that the impacts of cyberattacks “could be considered an asymmetric risk factor that would negatively affect the county's [credit] rating.”
But while Fitch said a combination of a strong property tax base and financial reserves should help Suffolk County pay for technology upgrades, other counties may not be so lucky even as cybersecurity budgets swell but remain inadequate for the issues they face.
Alan Shark, vice president for public sector and executive director of the Public Technology Institute, said officials often choose to “wait and pray that nothing happens,” rather than invest up-front in cybersecurity. But attacks will force governments to “pay one way or the other,” he said. Cybersecurity experts in government should also tell elected officials and senior managers that across-the-board spending cuts do not help cybersecurity posture, Shark added.
A final factor highlighted by the report and Bellone’s press conference was the complexity of Suffolk County’s decentralized IT management and infrastructure, which relies on individual agencies to manage their own systems. The county clerk’s office has been blamed for allowing the 2021 intrusion and obstructing the subsequent internal investigation.
“Complexity is the enemy of security,” Bellone said during his press conference. He added that having a “single IT security presence” is “the responsible and necessary approach to protect the government and its taxpayers for the future.”
Meanwhile, ransomware attacks against government agencies have continued. Late last year, the Russian-affiliated group Lockbit said it had added the California Department of Finance to its list of victims, and it pledged to leak data if its demands were not met.
Beyond making their security an enterprisewide effort, Chris Clements, vice president of solutions architecture at cybersecurity company Cerberus Sentinel, said in an email that organizations need a “culture of cybersecurity that ingrains the fundamentals of defense and resiliency into the business itself.”