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Ransomware gangs are increasingly targeting U.S. cities and towns | #ransomware | #cybercrime

A city skyline that looks like a circuit board

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

A recent resurgence in ransomware attacks targeting local governments is spurring local IT leaders into action to lock down their systems.

Driving the news: Leaders in Dallas are preparing to spend months recovering from a recent attack that hindered the city’s 911 emergency services, court systems and more.

What they’re saying: “Cities are seeing either themselves or a close neighbor — or they’re seeing big cities in their states — all get hit with this stuff, so everybody is on high alert at this point,” Mark Manglicmot, senior vice president of security services at Arctic Wolf, told Axios.

  • “We’re talking to more of these city IT and security leaders, and I can tell they’re scared,” he said.

The big picture: After a reported dip in ransomware costs last year, experts say that ransomware attacks against governments are back up to previous levels — and could even be worse.

  • Ransomware gangs spent the last year writing new malware to infect companies and evade detections, Manglicmot said.
  • Malicious attackers have also recognized that local governments have a trove of sensitive data about their residents, Rita Reynolds, chief information officer at the National Association of Counties, told Axios.
  • Nearly seven in 10 IT leaders at local and state governments said in a Sophos report last week that they faced ransomware in the last year. Most of those attacks started either through unpatched systems or stolen passwords.

Flashback: Cities and towns have been facing an uptick in ransomware — where hackers encrypt an organization’s networks until a ransom is paid — since at least 2019.

  • One of the most notable such cases was in Baltimore when ransomware prevented residents from paying their water bills or parking tickets for at least two weeks.

Between the lines: Local government IT officials face a unique set of challenges to fend off fast-moving ransomware gangs.

  • Local governments are amorphous: They include not only the networks within city halls, but also public libraries, the police department and other public offices.
  • Providing IT departments with more funds is a yearslong process that requires buy-in from local politicians or federal grant programs.

  • Most local governments have small IT teams that dual-hat as cybersecurity teams — meaning they not only provide tech support to employees and residents, but they also need to monitor possible threats and find time to patch systems.

The intrigue: Governments are increasingly turning to third-party service providers and cloud products to fill the gaps in their security stacks, Reynolds told Axios.

  • Doing this helps modernize government services and augment the workload for threat monitoring.
  • However, if these tools aren’t configured properly or aren’t patched when new vulnerabilities are discovered, they can provide new entry points for ransomware criminals, Reynolds said.

Yes, but: It’s challenging to put a precise number on how many ransomware attacks there have been so far in 2023, since there’s no standardized requirement to report such incidents.

  • “It’s a hard thing to track for a couple of reasons and that is the willingness for the folks I work with in county governments to say out loud, ‘Here’s what’s happening,’ because it draws attention,” Reynolds said.
  • Not all experts even agree that there’s been an increase in attacks: Allan Liska, a ransomware analyst at Recorded Future, recently estimated that attacks on state, local, tribal and national governments have been on the decline since 2021.

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