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Will cyberattacks on cities become the new norm?

Atlanta recovering from ransomware attack
Atlanta recovering from ransomware attack 05:12

Atlanta is in recovery mode following last week's cyberattack that crippled the city's online network for five days. It wasn't the only city recently hit: A ransomware attack hobbled Baltimore's 911 dispatch system over the weekend, prompting a roughly 17-hour shutdown of automated emergency dispatching.

Are these troubling signs that cyberattacks on U.S. cities are becoming the new norm?

New York Times reporter Alan Blinder -- whose recent article on the Atlanta attack called it "one of the most sustained and consequential cyberattacks ever mounted against a major American city" -- said "virtually every expert we've talked with has said this is probably a reality of modern life."

"We've seen some surveys from chief information officers from governments around the country and they've said that they receive attacks very often," he said. "A quarter of the country's local governments say that there's an attempted attack on their systems at least once an hour, so it's not going away."

The city of Atlanta has not gone into detail about how last week's attack occurred, said Blinder. Officials have said it included the encryption of some city data and caused outages for numerous city applications. But it did not affect police and fire emergency response systems, water supply safety or the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. 

The hackers behind the attack demanded ransom -- blocking online access to certain city sites and leaving residents unable to pay bills, report potholes or even use the Wi-Fi at the airport. The culprits demanded the equivalent of about $51,000 in bitcoin to unlock the shuttered systems. Blinder said there's no word yet on whether the city will pay it.

On Tuesday, Atlanta city employees were advised to turn on their computers and printers for the first time since the attack hit early Thursday of last week. But of Thursday morning, people still couldn't pay their water bills, Blinder reported.

"It's just a slow process of recovery," he said.

Later on Thursday, the City of Atlanta announced that the ATL311 website is once again accepting online requests for services  including trash pick-up and recycling. Last Thursday, ATL311 had disabled the ability to submit service requests through the website "out of an abundance of caution while the City worked to restore systems during the cyberattack," the mayor's office said in a statement.

Experts say ransomware exploits known software vulnerabilities, and often organizations that fall victim to such attacks haven't done a thorough job of patching systems regularly.

Atlanta was warned months ago that its IT systems could easily come under attack if they weren't fixed immediately, an internal audit obtained by the CBS affiliate WGCL-TV shows. In the 41-page audit, which was presented to city leaders last summer, the city was told that its IT department was on life support and that were no formal processes to manage risk, the station reports.

"In terms of what this means going forward, all we've heard so far are just broad commitments to improving cybersecurity in the city," Blinder said.

Baltimore 911 hack 01:12
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