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Attacks/Breaches

8/19/2019
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Towns Across Texas Hit in Coordinated Ransomware Attack

The state government and cybersecurity groups have mobilized to respond to a mass ransomware attack that simultaneously hit 22 different towns statewide.

[This article was updated on Aug. 20 with new information from the state of Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) that 22 towns were affected, not 23 as the DIR originally had stated.] 

The state of Texas has been hit with a rare coordinated ransomware attack that disrupted systems of 22 different local governments.

The Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) issued a statewide alert on Aug. 16 warning towns and cities across the state about the attack campaign. The attack hit Friday morning and appears to be the work of a single threat actor, the DIR said in a statement on Aug. 17. Later that day, Texas government officials activated a multi-organizational task force, including the Department of Information Resources (DIR), the Texas A&M University System's Security Operations Center (SOC), the Texas Department of Public Safety, and emergency and military responders.

By Saturday, all affected entities had been notified and the DIR confirmed that state systems had not been affected by the attack. 

"Investigations into the origin of this attack are ongoing; however, response and recovery are the priority at this time," the DIR alert stated. "Responders are actively working with these entities to bring their systems back online."

The coordinated attack against Texas' local governments represents, arguably, the most brazen ransomware operation to date. While ransomware attacks are becoming more targeted, a single coordinated attack against a state is rare.

It is unclear what made the simultaneous attack possible. The same type of vulnerable systems could have been present in each network, or a third-party service provider could have been compromised, says Adam Kujawa, director of security research at Malwarebytes.  

"[I]t is very alarming to see this kind of coordinated attack happen all at once," he says. "More than likely, most of these networks were already compromised by some other threat and the ransomware aspect just hadn't been downloaded and launched until last Friday."

Yet, the coordinated nature of the attack will likely end up as a miscalculation. In July, mayors from the largest towns and cities in the United States pledged to not pay future ransom demands. The pledge, made at the US Conference of Mayors, came after several high profile ransomware attacks against both large cities, such as Atlanta and Baltimore, and small towns, such as Riviera Beach and Lake City, both in Florida.

By attacking many towns and elevating the response to the state-level, the ransomware operators have made it less likely that the victims will pay, Tim Erlin, vice president of product management and strategy at Tripwire, said in a statement.

"If this is really a coordinated attack, it's hard to imagine how it's a good thing for the ransomware attackers and for this specific criminal. Raising the bar on the response to a coordinated state level will decrease the likelihood that ransom will actually get paid, and increase the likelihood that both Texas and other states are better prepared for these events in the future," he said.

Ransomware is generally on the rise. In 2018, more than half of all organizations (53%) polled by messaging service provider Mimecast encountered a ransomware attack that impacted operations, according to the company's State of E-mail Security 2019 report. 

On Alert

The attack on Texas mainly targeted small local governments, but the DIR did not rule out that other systems had been affected.

"Currently, DIR, the Texas Military Department, and the Texas A&M University System's Cyberresponse and Security Operations Center teams are deploying resources to the most critically impacted jurisdictions," the agency stated. "Further resources will be deployed as they are requested."

Kujawa says while the mayors of larger US towns have committed to not paying ransom, it's unclear if the Texas towns will follow suit.

"If they do, it could hearten other victims, but it may not have a long-term benefit," says Kujawa. "I think we could see it as a sign of resistance and a light in the dark for some organizations, especially those who aren't sure they could actually fight against a ransomware attack." 

That wouldn't likely deter attackers from employing ransomware, though, he notes. "I think at this point they hope that if they get even 50% of what they are demanding from their attacks, they are sitting pretty with a good profit," he says.

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Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio

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