The City of Racine got its first taste of cyberattacks this month, and it’s been an altogether unpleasant experience.
The city’s computers were infected with a ransomware virus — although no ransom was demanded — which crippled internal online networks and voicemail systems, took down the city’s website for several days, caused meetings to be canceled and prevented citizens from contacting departments by email and from paying fines and conducting business with the city — unless they went to City Hall and did it the old-fashioned way: by cash or check.
Work continues to scrub servers, cleanse the computer system and get things back on track — but that’s taking a while. And it doubtlessly will cost a lot to fix both in terms of repair work and lost employee productivity and inconvenience.
Racine is not alone in being targeted by computer ransom attacks. Racine was hit on Jan. 31, one day after the City of Oshkosh suffered a similar attack from an implanted computer virus. The Oshkosh attack, which also crippled that city’s computers, has been blamed by the FBI on Russian hackers; officials don’t believe that’s the case with the attack in Racine, saying only that it came from out of the area.
Nor are the two Wisconsin cities alone. Only last November, a Milwaukee- based company that provides technology services to more than 100 nursing homes in 48 states was hit with a cyberattack that cut access to patient records and medications. The hackers demanded payment of $14 million to release their hold, but the company could not afford that.
Even Union Grove High School had a close encounter with ransomware last October, but the virus was caught by its technology director, who shut down the school’s computer system before the district’s data was compromised. That, too, required a computer clean-up that took a week.
It triggered a new look at the district’s computer security system, with upgrades to its antivirus protection and education programs for staff on how to avoid phishing attempts by hackers intent on getting people to open false emails or to click on links that open a pathway for a virus to infect a computer system.
That’s a good path to follow — not only for the City of Racine once it gets back on its computerized feet — but for each and every municipality, business, hospital, educational institution or school. That includes making sure computer systems have good backup systems that are routinely used, effective virus controls and educating staff.
Individual computer owners might want to take a look at their protections and ability to block viruses — and maybe change up some of their passwords so a single one doesn’t give a hacker the keys to their entire cyberkingdom.
The Racine ransomware attack was a warning shot. It might be more costly and even more unpleasant next time if we don’t heed that warning.