Since 2015, unbridled ransomware attacks of government institutions have become a concern for the FBI, as they have begun targeting government servers. In fact, according to the Department of Homeland Security, federal agencies suffered 321 such ransomware attacks between June and December of last year.
Thanks to the outdated security modules still being used in these organizations, criminals often find them an easy target.
One of the primary security issues governments experience that have made such attacks more common are their outdated systems. Cybercriminals know they have a high chance of successfully infecting legacy systems that lack the proper, updated security features.
In some cases, this inadequacy cannot be blamed entirely on the lack of resources. A lot of these agencies are stuck with old systems due to the kind of work they perform. IRS systems, for instance, must be running 24/7 or else they fall behind on taxes for the whole country. Many local government institutions are caught up in a similar conundrum, in addition to lacking the funds to carry out the needed updates.
Ransomware is one of the most effective types of malware cybercriminals use in extorting money from their victims. Delivered by means of innocent-looking malicious advertising, email, link or file, it typically distributes dangerous software. This locks screens and steals or encrypts data. Recipients either have their information hacked or are required to pay an exorbitant ransom (hence the name) to retrieve files or regain access to the computer. It should be apparent how that could be detrimental to unprepared government agencies.
On March 22, 2018 a clear demonstration of what could go wrong in the event of an attack occurred in Atlanta.
After years of warnings about their substandard security, the city was hit by a ransomware cyberattack. City records were unavailable, and reports were being written the old-fashioned way—by hand. Even the ransom demand was received by way of a handwritten note. The city government was practically shut down.
More than an inconvenience, this calamity plagued the city for months. As of August, the city was still assessing the damages. The estimated total at that time was already more than $2.7 million.
“I just want to make the point that this is much bigger than a ransomware attack,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said. “This is really an attack on our government, which means it’s an attack on all of us.”
In the face of such cybersecurity risks, what can governments do?
Two of the main reasons such institutions are susceptible to attacks is indifference and, in many cases, an inadequate budget. However, these institutions will do better for themselves by consolidating data centers. Cloud computing is the new way to stay safe online. This could save up to $5.4 billion if government agencies adopt it.
Regular system updates to new patches could also save a lot of trouble. The recent WannaCry attack could have been prevented by security patches that were released about six months before the attack. Most institutions failed to use them.
Cybersecurity is a major concern for many large organizations, including the government. Institutions out to protect themselves from such attacks must start with the basic security precautions, including adding the required patches to the software. Updating hardware components will also go a long way in ensuring the systems work better and are more secure.
In the meantime, cybercriminals are getting smarter and looking at large-scale attacks. Legal and cyber experts are of the opinion that these scams will only get worse in the future.