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Should Baltimore Have Paid a Ransom to End a Cyberattack on City Infrastructure?

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An aerial view of Baltimore’s skyline.

For more than two weeks now, Baltimore has been battling a major ransomware attack on its city government infrastructure. The city government‘s email, voicemail, property tax portal, and water bill and parking ticket payment systems have all been affected, and more than 1,000 pending home sales have been delayed. (To add insult to injury, the Baltimore Sun reported Thursday that “Gmail accounts created by Baltimore officials as a workaround while the city recovers from the ransomware attack have been disabled because Google considers them business accounts that should be paid for, the mayor’s office said.” Though later that day Google said access to the Gmail accounts had been restored.) The cause of these problems is a relatively new strain of malware called RobbinHood, which, like other ransomware programs, encrypts infected systems so that they cannot be used or accessed until a payment is made and the attackers provide the necessary decryption key. It’s a deeply frustrating type of cybersecurity incident because it interrupts operations so completely. Even if a victim is perfectly prepared with full offline data back-ups, it still requires time and resources to reboot all of the infected computers.

So far, Baltimore’s response appears to have been admirable, if slow. It’s taking systems offline to prevent the malware from spreading and setting up an offline alternative to the online system for processing home sales, for instance. But in an interview recently, Baltimore Mayor Bernard Young hinted that he might be considering the worst possible response: giving in to the attackers’ demands for a payment of 13 bitcoins, or roughly $100,000.

Young didn’t say he would authorize the payment, but he showed signs of caving to the pressure, telling reporters, “I am thinking. Right now, I say no, but in order to move the city forward? I might think about it. But I have not made a decision yet.”

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