Revelations that hackers invaded critical Washington security infrastructure just days before President Donald J. Trump was inaugurated have raised new fears that “ransomware” attackers are able to easily penetrate important security systems. However, federal and local authorities in Washington have been quick to deny that the hacking caused any damage to important systems.
The authorities have also made clear that the cyber intrusion was quickly addressed and that neither President Trump nor any inaugural attendees were put at risk.
Ransomware Increasingly Common, Dangerous Hacking Strategy
According to The Washington Post, hackers invaded more than 70 percent of the devices that store footage from closed-circuit television cameras throughout the city. CCTV cameras are a critical part of federal and local authorities strategy to monitor potential criminal or terrorist activity in public spaces across the city. Storage of the information is critical so officers can quickly review tapes and make threat assessments.
However, on Jan. 12, Metro Police Department employees realized that four video camera sites were not operating normally. When they reported their concerns to the Office of the Chief Technology Officer, Washington’s top tech official, an immediate investigation was launched and discovered that ransomware was the cause of the breakdown.
After a sweep across the entire network, the technology services staff discovered that those were not the only sites that were not working. In fact, when the review was fully completed, city officials learned that 123 of 187 network video recorders were not working.
Ransomware is an increasingly common hacking strategy that is closely related to malware. Once a system is infected with the malware, the hackers either encrypt files on the system with a password that only they know or lock out users of the system entirely. They then contact the victims and demand a ransom payment to restore access to the files or the system.
According to Washington officials, however, the city did not pay any ransom to the hackers. Instead, over a 48-hour period beginning Jan. 12 and concluding on Jan. 15, city government took each video camera site offline and restarted them with no software to remove the intrusion.
The process did result in a disruption in data collection from the video camera sites, but Interim Police Chief Peter Newsham downplayed that. In fact, Newsham told the Post that there was “no significant impact” from the hacking.
While the city may have escaped unscathed, the incident is sure to raise fears about hacking vulnerabilities if the cyber attackers were able to penetrate a police security system in a city that is heavily protected because of the presence of the President, Congress, and most of the federal government.
The hacking is believed to be a “localized” incident, according to authorities, and unrelated to hacking attacks directed by the Russian government during the 2016 presidential election campaign. In those attacks, emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta were illegally accessed and then dumped online, resulting in a wave of negative coverage that possibly doomed her candidacy.
Aside from ruling out foreign sources, however, Washington authorities have not identified any suspects in the ransomware incident.
Investigation Continues, Hacking Still At Fore
Public interest in a hacker sophisticated enough to bring down Washington’s CCTV system, albeit temporarily, is sure to remain high. It is expected that city officials and law enforcement will likely announce more developments in the case soon.
Be that as it may, the issue of hacking – both this incident and those during the campaign – are likely to remain at the fore. And future attacks, including ones on critical infrastructure, unfortunately, cannot be ruled out.
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