The New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is the latest victim in string of cyberattacks that have forced computer shutdowns in the city and elsewhere in the state.
Hackers injected ransomware onto the center’s computer networks Thursday, convention center officials said in a Friday evening press release.
They said the attack was similar to cyberattacks that have hit City Hall and state government computer networks in recent months.
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“Even with our extreme vigilance and system redundancies, we were victimized by a criminal element seeking to harm the center, our clients, and our vendors,” Convention Center President Michael J. Sawaya said.
It was unclear Friday if the hackers lodged a ransom demand, or if the convention center had made a payment. Officials do not believe center employees’ personal data was compromised as a result of the attack.
It is the second attack to hit New Orleans in the past month, and it comes after an attack on state government computer servers last year that caused a host of major problems, including forcing the closure of the state Office of Motor Vehicles. A handful of school districts have also weathered attacks in recent months.
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They join more than 40 municipalities across the U.S. this year whose systems have been infiltrated by foreign and domestic cyber criminals seeking a quick payout. Some government agencies have obliged, although experts say cooperating with the hackers only emboldens them to attack in the future.
The convention center has cybersecurity insurance and filed a claim as soon as officials verified the attack this week. Officials said attack involved malicious software that locked up the center’s computers and left it unable to access data on its networks.
Its insurance policy, with Travelers Insurance, provided the center with a data breach response team to investigate and remediate the attack.
“It’s very cryptic and we’re not even sure we know yet what the demand is,” said Tim Hemphill, the center’s vice president of sales and marketing. “Once we file the claim with the insurance company they take over and send in a negotiation team. There is also a ‘breach coach’ who acts like a kind of grief counselor and talks us through the various steps,” he said.
The center had its computers backed up on remote servers but it is not yet clear whether that will be recoverable once the ransomware is unlocked. Though it had anti-virus software in place, the ransomware appears to have been sophisticated enough to outmanuever it, Sawaya said.
The attack seems to have been a variation of the so-called Ryuk attack that has been behind others nationwide. It locks computers and demands a ransom payment in the cybercurrency bitcoin.
“It’s a variant of the one launched on other systems in the last few weeks and months and it is hard for cybersecurity protocols to keep up with it,” Hemphill said. “If you ask the experts, they say the most likely source is Russia,” he added.
The disruption meant that orders for services like electrical installations and audio-visual equipment that would normally be handled by email had to be dealt with manually until an alternative email service was set up. That service is expected to go live on Saturday.
Center officials said they have apprised their guests of the situation. The facility is currently hosting the New Orleans Blastoff volleyball competition, Hauntcon and Mardi Gras Extravaganza National 2020 this weekend; officials said those events have already been “inconvenienced” by the attack.
The next big exhibition due to start setting up after Martin Luther King Day on Monday is the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, with the conference set to open Jan. 25, Hemphill said.