The government of Baltimore reportedly lost a lot of key data in ransomware attacks earlier this year because it did not have basic policies for backing up employee systems.
A new audit has shown that prior to the attack, at least, the only copies of critical data that the city had in many instances was what was stored on user systems, the Baltimore Sun reported Friday.
Despite concerns over damaging ransomware attacks, Baltimore's IT department had no cloud backup or other data-recovery mechanisms in place. Many employees were simply saving files to their local computer drives with no other copies of the data existing anywhere else. As a result, when attackers encrypted data on those systems during the ransomware attack, the city had no way of recovering it.
The newspaper quoted one city councilman as expressing disbelief over what had happened. "Wow. That's mind-boggling to me," the Sun quoted city Councilman Eric Costello as saying. "They're the agency that should be tasked with educating people that that's a problem."
Baltimore's office of information technology did not immediately respond to a Dark Reading request for comment on the findings of the new audit.
Baltimore is one of several municipal governments that have been hit with ransomware attacks this year. The May 7 attack on the city disrupted multiple critical services and forced several operations into manual mode. The services that were affected included real estate transactions, online bill payments, telecommunication, and email.
The attackers demanded the equivalent of over $76,000 in bitcoin as ransom for decrypting the encrypted data. But city officials refused to accede to the demand and instead set out on recovering data and systems on their own.
By early July, Baltimore had already spent over $5 million on recovery. Of that, $2.8 million was on forensic analysis and detection; nearly $600,000 on technicians to deploy new systems, to replace hard drives or in staff overtime; and another $1.9 million on new hardware and software related to ransomware recovery.
The city has said it expects to spend some $10 million in response and recovery efforts this year alone. The Sun and several other news sources have also quoted city officials as saying Baltimore will lose at least an additional $8.2 million in revenues from property taxes, fines, and real estate fees.
Baltimore is by far not the first entity impacted in this manner after a ransomware attack, nor is it likely to be the last. Scores of organizations over the past year have either lost data or been forced into making substantial payments to recover it after a ransomware attack because they did not have proper backups or did not want to spend the time and effort on self-recovery.
Such incidents have highlighted the criticality of proper data backup and disaster recovery planning. Mark Chaplin, principal at the Information Security Forum says formal data restoration measures are a fundamental precaution for organizations these days.
"With so much attention on ransomware as a prevalent method of attack, lack of backup represents a significant oversight that could so easily be avoided," he notes. "Backup, like secure builds, patch management, and access control, [are] a fundamental security measure required for cybersecurity hygiene."
Cost can be a challenge for organizations when planning for data recovery scenarios, he admits. Legal and regulatory obligations such as those related to the EU's General Data Protection Regulation can also present difficulties when it comes to backing up and archiving data, but should not be an excuse for not doing so, Chaplin says. "Backup can be challenging on a large scale, but as a basic security measure it should be at, or near, the top of the list. Ignore at your peril," he cautions.
Terence Jackson, CISO at Thycotic, says a good disaster recovery and business continuity plan should include well-defined policies and procedures. Organizations need to conduct tabletop exercises at least once a year to ensure their plan is effective. Relationships with vendors, insurance companies, forensic firms, and law enforcement should also be established in plan development.
"In the event of a ransomware attack, an organization should be able to detect the event, isolate the endpoints effected to stop the further spread, and be able to recover any data that may have been destroyed," says Jackson. On-site and off-site backup strategies should be implemented to prevent damage to data recovery efforts and enforcing least privilege will also stop some processes from executing.
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