Ransomware attacks hit ‘under-resourced’ city governments hardest, says cybersecurity expert whose kids’ school was shut down by hackers for 4 days

Colonial Pipeline
Trucks line up at a Colonial Pipeline facility.

  • Friday’s DarkSide attack took down a major oil pipeline that supplies the US East Coast.
  • A cybersecurity expert said such ransomware attacks tend to target municipal governments.
  • The expert’s kids were out of school for four days last year after Baltimore’s school system was hacked.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The hacking of a major US oil pipeline Friday is the latest in a string of cyberattacks under federal investigation.

The stories read like movie loglines: A reportedly Russia-backed group slowly burrowed its way into US digital infrastructure, gaining access to important government accounts. An unknown cyber-assailant tried to poison a Florida town’s water supply. And now, a group of veteran cybercriminals took down an East Coast oil pipeline and held it ransom.

Ransomware attacks are common and are the cyberattack with the most potential to wreak havoc on everyday life, according to Ben Miller, an executive at the industrial cybersecurity firm Dragos Inc.

Miller had firsthand experience with a ransomeware attack in November, when hackers took over Baltimore’s school system and forced it to shut down for four days.

“My kids didn’t have any snow days this year because they had school from home,” Miller told Insider. “They had ransomware days.”

There are two major types of cyberattacks, according to Miller: attacks like the one on US information technology firm SolarWinds, which US intelligence agencies say Russia was behind, that seek some kind of geopolitical advantage. Then there is smaller-scale ransomware, where – normally private actors that may or may not work with tacit government permission – go after companies and other institutions and then extort them to ease up on the attack.

The DarkSide attack against the Colonial Pipeline was a ransomware attack. The hacking group shut down a major pipeline that runs from Texas to New York, demanding money in order to restore its service in what Miller said was an example of how cyberattacks are increasingly affecting the “real world.”

Some of the most common targets of ransomware are municipal governments that are “under-resourced and under-managed” when it comes to cybersecurity, Miller said. Several other school systems in the US were hit by ransomware attacks in the past year. In April, the Justice Department announced a new task force to address ransomware attacks across the US.

Ransomware gangs also go after hospitals, as in the 2017 Wannacry hack that shut down parts of Britain’s National Health Service.

The hackers typically want to cause as much pain as possible so that they can get paid quickly, Miller said, making critical infrastructure an appealing target.

“When they can have a direct impact on their business – like shutting down a pipeline or impact to some facility – it does ring a chord with the victims and how they respond to that,” Miller said.

Miller said cyberattacks are so commonly directed at US companies because they’re wealthy enough to pay off ransomware attackers. Ransomware hacking groups view themselves as businesses, he said, and target companies and institutions in countries where they’re likely to make money: The United States, Britain, and Germany.

“The industry in the US would be more likely to pay an extortion of a couple of hundred thousand dollars or whatever,” Miller said. “Not to say that they should, or do – but they’re perceived that way, compared to firms in South America or Africa where that would literally, in many cases, put these firms out of business.”

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