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Atlanta Paralyzed For More Than A Week By Cyber Attack


The city of Atlanta has gone back in time. Police officers are writing their reports up by hand. City workers are punching in and out with time clocks and using manual timesheets. Courts can't get into their computer files, so they're notifying people to reschedule cases. Atlanta has been paralyzed for more than a week by a ransomware attack. And to catch us up on the latest, Tasnim Shamma from member station WABE in Atlanta joins us now. Welcome.


CHANG: All of this started last Thursday. Early in the morning, Atlanta starts getting reports of computer outages. Can you tell us what happened?

SHAMMA: Yeah, so that's when the city thinks that it was hit by a ransomware attack. And the group behind it is thought to be SamSam. Their origins are possibly Eastern Europe, but no one really knows. But basically what they did was they got access to city data, and they encrypted or locked the files. And a screenshot of the ransom note shows that they would hand over the keys to unlock the city's data for a ransom of six bitcoin, which is now trading at about $41,000. Last week, it was actually $51,000.

CHANG: Oh, it's going down in price.


CHANG: So I'm assuming because the city is still in disarray, the city has not paid the $41,000 ransom?

SHAMMA: From what we know, the city hasn't paid. Online, you can see that no payments have been made to the group. But yesterday the city said it wouldn't talk about the cyberattack anymore. And that's following advice from their federal partners like the FBI, Homeland Security and Secret Service. This might be all the information we have at this time.

CHANG: Well, beyond be on some of the manual work that city staff has had to do in the past several days, what about people just living in Atlanta? How has this all been affecting them?

SHAMMA: It's been difficult. I mean, there's one man who says that he's been showing up to the courts every day and being turned away. Like, he wants to pay a ticket so he can start his new job, but he can't. And then there's another woman - her name is Denice McMillian - who I spoke to. And she says that she got a water bill for last month and this month, so she was double-billed. And she has a bank statement to prove it, but the city of Atlanta can't check her water account to verify it.

DENICE MCMILLIAN: I'm unable to resolve exactly what I owe to Watershed due to the fact that their computers are down. And they're unable to really tell us anything - seems like it could potentially be a nightmare. Either they're not getting the income that they need because we're paying the bills and the city's not getting the money, or they're incapable of registering us as being paid, and it may just be no big deal.

CHANG: Do things at least in the past couple days seem to be getting any better?

SHAMMA: Well, the city has been working with cybersecurity firms to bring critical systems back online, and they say they also had backup systems, so they're restoring some of their data that way. And services in Atlanta are painfully but slowly coming back online, like Atlanta's 311 web platform yesterday, just one week after the attack. And so people can once again report things like potholes and graffiti and request trash pickup and recycling online. And we just found out today that water bill payments are being accepted, but you have to write a check and go in person to give it to them.

CHANG: Now, other cities have been hit before with ransomware attacks, right? How are cities even preparing themselves for threats like this?

SHAMMA: A lot of cities are looking at how secure their systems are, making sure that their staffs are - have enough resources to deal with cyberattacks and also making sure that they have backups so that they can restore their data in the case of a ransomware attack.

CHANG: That's Tasnim Shamma of member station WABE in Atlanta. Thank you very much.

SHAMMA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tasnim Shamma joined WABE 90.1 FM as a reporter in November 2014. She comes to Atlanta from Charlotte, where she spent more than two years at the NPR member station WFAE.
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