On May 30, Dark Reading posted my column, "The Ransomware Dilemma: What if Your Local Government Is Next?" The article came on the heels of the ransomware attack on Baltimore's government and that city's decision not to pay the ransom. The article discussed the moral-versus-practical dilemma of paying ransoms. In short, the moral view is to not pay because it reinforces bad behavior. The practical view is that paying the ransom is the right move because this ultimately dwarfs the costs of not paying and is often the quickest path to restoring access to your data.
We get to revisit this debate again with the news that the city council for Riviera Beach, Florida, voted unanimously to pay the ransom of $600,000, or 65 bitcoin. In this case, it appears there was little debate about what to do because the city board voted unanimously to authorize its insurer to pay the ransom. According to The Palm Beach Post, "Without discussion on the merits, the board tackled the agenda item in two minutes, voted and moved on." Multiple media reports also indicated the city council believed it had no choice if it wanted to regain access to lost data.The city's outside security consultants recommended they pay the ransom and the city's insurance provider negotiated with the attackers.
In this case, it doesn't appear it's worth debating whether to pay or not to pay because the conclusion the city council and their advisers made was there wasn't a choice if they wanted to regain access to their data. So, let's shift the focus to what local government organizations can do to make sure they are in a position to have a choice.
Step 1: Ensure a Proper Cyber Mindset
If it's not clear by now, it should be: Attackers are focused on local governments as attractive ransomware targets. Local governments are viewed as soft targets because of constrained IT budgets and staff. This results in many government organizations operating on antiquated IT infrastructure, which has a higher risk profile than current technologies. Therefore, local government organizations must adopt a mindset of "it's not if, it's when" and to think in terms of cyber resilience. That is, "When I get attacked, how can I recover rapidly and with minimal disruption?"
Step 2: Do the Basics
We hear a lot about how local government organizations don't have the resources they need or want, and that's true. However, that isn't an excuse for not doing the basics. Patching your systems on a timely basis can reduce your attack surface. Please, please, please back up your data. There is no excuse for not backing up your data, and it's the only 100% effective mitigator against ransomware risk. In the case of Riviera Beach, if the city had no choice but to pay the ransom to get its data back, this suggests it didn't have a proper data backup strategy in place. An effective backup strategy includes identifying what data needs to be backed up and setting a backup frequency that makes sense based on the criticality of the data. Patching and backing up data should be at the top of your priority list.
Step 3: Use and Share Threat Intelligence
Today's threat landscape requires a broad view of threat actor activity. The days of relying on the intelligence in your exiting security controls are in the rearview mirror. There is a perception that threat intelligence is beyond the scope of local government organizations; however, this isn't the case anymore. An easy first step is to become part your industry threat sharing community, which in the case of local governments is the Multi-State Information Sharing & Analysis Center (MS-ISAC) and the Elections Infrastructure ISAC.
Step 4: If You Don't Have Cyber Insurance, Get It
Cyberattacks are going to happen. Given that, there's no excuse not to have cyber insurance as a way to mitigate the financial costs of recovering from a cyberattack. Also, when you buy cyber insurance or if you already have it, make sure you take advantage of all the benefits you get with your policy. For example, many cyber insurance providers provide a range of complimentary cyber protection technologies and services as a component of their cyber insurance policies.
Step 5: Accelerate Your Move to the Cloud
In the private sector, there is no longer debate about the security of the cloud. Organizations are accelerating their move to the cloud, shifting IT infrastructure to cloud providers like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google, and increasing their use of software-as-a-service. Cloud-based backup services are also heavily used today (hint, hint). Increasing the use of cloud computing is an excellent way for resource constrained government organizations to reduce cyber-risk, ensure your IT is operating on a modern infrastructure, and reduce costs. With the cloud, the cybersecurity responsibility for the infrastructure shifts to the cloud provider. I don't think it's a leap to suggest that cloud providers like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google have more security resources than local government organizations do. It's important to note that moving to the cloud does not shift all of the security burden to the cloud providers. Security in the cloud is a shared model, so while infrastructure security is handled by the provider, it's still your responsibility to secure your applications and data.