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Atlanta hit by ransomware attack, city employees told not to turn on computers

City of Atlanta hit by ransomware attack
Credit: daoleduc, Getty Images/iStockphoto
A ransomware variant known as WannaCry relies on a hole in the Windows 10 code which Microsoft issued a patch for on March 14.

City employees in Atlanta coming to work Friday morning were told not to turn on their computers and WiFi at the Atlanta airport was turned off due to a ransomware attack that hit municipal systems on Thursday.

As employees walked into city hall for work, they were handed a printed notice telling them to not use their computers until they were cleared by the municipal IT group, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported.

At a news conference Friday afternoon, Atlanta chief operating officer Richard Cox said that the WiFi at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport had been disabled out of "an abundance of caution."

The city is still working on mitigating the ransomware and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms did not answer questions from reporters as to whether the attack had ended.

"What we want to make sure of is that we aren’t putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. We want to make sure that we take the appropriate steps," she said.

Atlanta doesn’t know who is behind the attack, the mayor said.

The good news is that while “this is a massive inconvenience to the city, it is not life and death,” she said. Police, fire and other vital services are still fully functional, Cox said. 

The attack hit early Thursday morning. Bottoms has repeatedly told employees they should monitor their bank accounts because city officials don’t yet know what information was compromised in the attack.

"Let's just assume that if your personal information is housed by the City of Atlanta, whether it be because you are a customer who goes online and pays your bills or any employee or even a retiree, we don't know the extent, so we just ask that you be vigilant," Bottoms said.

The ransomware is affecting applications that customers use to pay bills and access court-related information among other things, Bottoms said.

The attackers demanded the equivalent of $51,000 in digital currency to unlock the system. 

The city is working with the FBI and local law enforcement to investigate the attack, Cox said. While it has been a difficult two days, Atlanta will in the end prevail, he said.

"The city was around before computers were around, said Cox. "We’ll rise from the ashes," he added. 

More: 4 ways to prevent ransomware attacks

Ransomware is a kind of malware that invades computers or computer networks and then locks them down, with the attackers demanding a ransom before they will unlock them. The initial infection often comes through a phishing link that someone within the network opens via email which allows the ransomware to infect the system.

Such attacks are increasingly common. A report last year from the Ponemon Institute found that half of organizations surveyed had had one or more ransomware incidents in 2017, and 40% had experienced multiple attacks.   

An IBM study found that 70% of businesses have been hit with ransomware. Over half of those paid more than $10,000 to regain their data and 20% paid more than $40,000.

In January, an Indiana hospital system paid a $50,000 ransom to hackers who hijacked patient data. The ransomware attack accessed the computers of Hancock Health in Greenfield through an outside vendor's account Thursday. It quickly infected the system by locking out data and changing the names of more than 1,400 files to "I'm sorry."

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