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Digital Subscriptions > Cities Today > Issue 23 > Holding cities to ransom

Holding cities to ransom

Cyber security has dominated the headlines in the US. From CIA claims that Russia meddled in the US presidential election in Donald Trump’s favour to the release of thousands of FBI agents’ names, Jonathan Andrews explains how cyber criminals are now increasingly turning their attention to cities
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In November last year 900 office computers at the San Francisco Municipal Transport Agency suddenly flashed with the message, ‘You hacked, ALL data encrypted’. The ransomware hacker demanded 100 Bitcoins, or around US$73,000 for the screens and data to be ‘unlocked’.

Although the malware encrypted mainly office computers, the agency took the precaution of opening fare gates on its light rail network and shutting down the fare system, providing free travel for almost two days. The city lost US$50,000 in revenue as a result.

“The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency never considered paying the ransom,” explains Paul Rose, spokesperson from the agency. “The cyber attack never compromised the fare system.”

Existing back up systems allowed the agency to get most of its affected computers up and running the next morning with the remaining computers functional in the next two days. Although customer payments were not hacked and no data was accessed from any of the servers, it would, no doubt have caused some jitters among city chief information officers across the US.

It’s easy to see why smart cities would be a top target for cybercriminals, terrorists or state-sponsored bodies. Given how critical the systems used to run a city are, hackers could wreak havoc with transport networks, street lighting, traffic control systems and smart grids.

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