When I first flew to Atlanta in March 2018, the city was in crisis. It had been hit by a massive ransomware attack, one that took down multiple critical departments and systems and made headlines around the country.
It's a story that's unfortunately repeated itself around the country since, with ransomware attacks hitting Albany, N.Y.; Baltimore, Md.; Lakeland, Fla., and many more. In total, ransomware hit more than 70 state and local governments in 2019.
The recovery from this large of an attack isn't easy by any means, but the city rallied behind its new CIO Gary Brantley to make it happen. He was brought in after the city's digital infrastructure had been stabilized and had been charged with ensuring such an event would not happen again.
I got to see what this process looks like first-hand when I was brought in to help with Atlanta's recovery and subsequent efforts to revitalize the city's security approach. It's a process I've repeated around the country, consulting to state and local agencies around the US, some of which had suffered their own ransomware attacks in the past year.
Every case is a learning experience, both for the city/county/agency and for the security professionals brought in to help. But Atlanta has proven to be a particularly good case study to follow, not only because it was one of the earlier cases of a major city ransomware attack, but also because it has come out on the other side of the event much stronger and resilient.
Many of these principles will also apply in the coming months as organizations respond to the latest crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this is a crisis in a different form, many of the same principles of cybersecurity resilience and response still apply.
Here are some of the takeaways from the city's cybersecurity turnaround:
1. To Pay, or Not to Pay?
It's become one of the central questions in the midst of a ransomware attack: to pay or not to pay? On one hand, paying the hackers only reinforces their desire to attack future organizations. It's also not guaranteed hackers will follow through with promises to decrypt data after payment, not to mention the fact that there's no guarantee they aren't still in the environment and can execute another attack. But, not paying can also mean a slower and much more costly recovery.
Atlanta chose to not pay the ransom, which amounted to roughly $50,000 in bitcoin, and recovery efforts ended up costing the city an estimated $7 million and took more than a year to complete. Brantley maintained that not paying is still one of the best decisions the city ever made. Ultimately, the recovery also gave the city an opportunity to establish a robust foundation upon which to rebuild their enterprise and teams to be stronger than ever before.
2. Incident Response is Key
It may seem obvious, but having a prepared incident response team in place before an attack occurs is key. Atlanta had a team already in place before the attack that included software and services vendors along with Homeland Security. All of these teams were aligned and working together before, during, and after the attack. This unified response management helped ensure that when the attack occurred, the teams were more quickly able to curb the attack and restore services. Companies, cities, or agencies who don't have this in place should consider implementing a strategy for incident response before it is needed.
3. Getting Back to Basics
One of the first things Brantley focused on as CIO was to get back to the basics. "One of the main learnings was to go back to operational basics, do the core things right and consistently," he recently said in a presentation at the RSA Conference in San Francisco. To do that, his team embraced and began to follow the NIST Cybersecurity Framework (CSF). On top of that, because the city had to rebuild many systems from scratch, it was able to replace legacy systems with newer, faster, and more secure technology.
This is especially important for a city like Atlanta, which is a hub for technology innovation. The City of Atlanta hosts one of the world's busiest passenger airports, has a world-renowned public transportation system, and is a leader on smart city initiatives. All of those functions rely on solid infrastructure, which is reinforced by these strong cybersecurity basics that Brantley has been working to put into place.
4. It's Not Just About Technology
While technology is obviously an important component of ransomware recovery, Brantley focused just as much on his teams, culture and people. "From Day 1, I took a lot of time to understand the organization, to listen, and to learn," he said at RSA. One of his first steps was to ensure the right people were in the right roles, then augment those employees with new hires that brought different skillsets.
Brantley knew that the execution of the city's technical transformation would only be possible with the right team in place. It's a lesson any business can learn from: The power of teamwork is always one of the strongest pieces of a recovery.
5. Look Forward, Not Back
It's tempting following this type of attack to want to limit future innovative technology initiatives. But Atlanta used this event to spur technology innovation across the city, tackling initiatives around facial recognition, drones, and even exploring technologies that can leverage 5G. It is incorporating security with each of these innovations.
"This fight is tough," Brantley added. "We are in a war where we get attacked, but you can't attack back. Make progress. Move forward. The transformation never stops."
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