Last month’s coordinated ransomware attacks against 23 cities in Texas reflect a troubling trend for America’s cities: bad actors are addicted to the payoff. In the 30 years since the first ransomware attack, the digital environment has changed beyond recognition, and it will only continue to mutate—by next year, approximately 30 billion devices will be connected to the Internet, and by 2025, almost 5 billion people will have access to the web. This presents an ever-growing opportunity for cybercriminals to wreak havoc—with local governments frequently in their crosshairs.
In the simplest terms, ransomware is malware that locks up data until the victim pays money to regain access. Established ransomware tactics involve holding a user’s data hostage for a few hundred dollars in Bitcoin. But attackers also make use of new ransomware strains like “Ryuk” and “SamSam” that target and infect entire organizations, and the demands for money increase exponentially. For instance, SamSam’s ransomware extortions average about $50,000 per attack. In August, a “single threat actor” likely compromised a managed-service provider—a company that manages numerous IT systems or services—to conduct attacks against Texas municipalities, demanding a collective 2.5 million dollars. But even after cities pay up, attackers may continue to target them and their insurers.
Kara Frederick is the Associate Fellow in the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. She previously worked for Facebook and the Department of Defense. This piece was adapted from City Journal.