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Cyberattack Hobbles Baltimore for Two Weeks and Counting

Published on May 22nd, 2019

About 10,000 city government computers remain
frozen two weeks after a disruptive cyberattack that
has delayed home sales and halted water bills.
By Scott Calvert and Jon Kamp

BALTIMORE—About 10,000 city government
computers here remain frozen two weeks after a
disruptive cyberattack that has delayed home sales and
halted water bills.

Baltimore was hit May 7 by hackers demanding an
undisclosed sum to unlock computers. The city hasn’t
paid, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation is
probing the incident. Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young
has warned it could take months to recover some
systems.

“It’s extremely alarming,” said City Council President
Brandon Scott.This is Baltimore’s second cyberattack
in 15 months. In March 2018, a short-lived ransomware
attack on the city’s 911 system forced dispatchers to
temporarily relay addresses and other information to
first-responders by phone rather than electronically.
City officials emphasized that key services such as 911
emergency dispatch haven’t been affected by the
current cyberattack.

Ransomware attacks are common in both the public
and private sectors, and attackers are generally looking
to exploit any vulnerability they can turn into extortion
for money. After accessing systems through methods
like malicious emails, hackers can encrypt files and
then demand payment in bitcoin to unlock them.
Local governments are often more vulnerable than
private companies, said Bill Siegel, chief executive at
Coveware, a Connecticut-based firm that helps entities
victimized by cyberattacks. “I think broadly they are
not prepared for these sorts of things, they do not have
the budget,” he said.

For Baltimore, “I think it’s pretty obvious that they
have not been able to stay ahead of it,” said Mr. Siegel,
who hasn’t worked with the city on this problem.
Frank Johnson, Baltimore’s chief information officer,
didn’t respond to a request to comment Tuesday.
Mr. Scott said he will form a special committee to
investigate the episode and city officials’ handling of it,
“but most importantly, how they’re going to work to
have this not happen in the future.”
While the city and outside contractors continued
working Monday to restore the municipal computer
system, officials began implementing a workaround to
allow home sales to proceed.

Between 200 and 300 closings have been hung up
because the city couldn’t tell title insurers whether the
seller had any unpaid liens, said Alan Ingraham, chief
executive of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.
Starting Monday, sellers were able to sign an affidavit
promising to pay any liens, such as unpaid water bills,
that are discovered once the computers come back
online. Mr. Young’s office said the city processed 42
applications for property deeds on the first day of the
workaround.

Mark Glazer, executive director of the Maryland Land
Title Association, a trade group for title insurers and
agents, said this helps but he hopes the city resumes
full operations quickly. May and June are busy months
for deal closings, he said.
Meanwhile, the problems continue for some city
agencies. Epidemiologists in Baltimore’s health
department can’t access the state network that helps
them warn the public when bad batches of street drugs
trigger overdoses. And the city’s public-works
department can’t generate new water bills for
customers, which could mean residents will get
unusually high bills once the problem is fixed.
“We can’t see the consumption data that our meters
are collecting and sending to us,” said Jeff Raymond, a
spokesman for the public-works department.
Greenville, N.C., was attacked last month by the same
type of ransomware afflicting Baltimore, dubbed
Robbinhood. The attackers demanded 13 bitcoins—
worth roughly $69,000 at that point—to unlock the
city’s files. The city didn’t pay, spokesman Brock
Letchworth said in an email.

“While not 100% restored, all of our major technology
needs are now being met,” he said.
Atlanta last year endured one of the highest-profile
ransomware attacks on a major city. The city also
refused to pay the ransom demand—$51,000 in that
case—and has faced millions of dollars in costs to
rebuild and bolster defenses.

In Baltimore, Mr. Scott said he pushed city officials to
strengthen cyber defenses after last year’s 911 hack but
that they “decided not to invest in this area.”A
spokesman for Mr. Young, who became mayor May 2
upon the resignation of Catherine Pugh, said Mr.
Young has directed officials to obtain cyber security
insurance, which would help offset the cost of any
future hacks.

More U.S. Cities Brace for ‘Inevitable’ Hackers (Sept.
4, 2018)
Ransom Demands and Frozen Computers: Hackers Hit
Towns Across the U.S. (June 24, 2018)
Probes, Cyberattack Distract Atlanta as It Tries to
Woo Amazon (May 27, 2018)

Write to Scott Calvert at [email protected] and
Jon Kamp at [email protected]

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