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Ransomware Attack Hits Baltimore City Government, Making Computer Network Unusable

Patrick Semansky/AP

Computers in the Baltimore city government have been infected with ransomware, disrupting the city’s technology systems and rendering email and other digital communications unusable.

Hackers behind the ransomware demanded around $75,000 on Tuesday to release their grasp on the network. The incident is the second such attack in just over a year.

City Hall, the Baltimore Police Department, the inspector general’s office, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Works have all reported issues with digital communication.

City hall employees say the attack is preventing them from accessing their documents, legislation drafts, calendars and emails. City Council members cancelled a Wednesday committee hearing as a result. Councilmembers say it makes maintaining steady communication with city departments more burdensome.

“Our phones are operational -- but being able to communicate with the other agencies is gonna be difficult,” councilman Kristerfer Burnett said, noting that following up on constituents’ issues without an email paper trail is cumbersome.

“There's a lot that we have been really reliant on technology to do, like track our progress,” he said.

Mayor Jack Young and city Chief Digital Officer Frank Johnson briefed the press about the attack on Wednesday morning, but, citing an ongoing investigation by the FBI, did not share specifics or how long it will take to recover the city’s network.

Johnson confirmed that the ransomware’s software is called RobbinHood, which he called  “very aggressive.”

“Unfortunately, it is a race between the bad actors and the cybersecurity industry,” Johnson said. “We have been assessed several times since I've been here and have got multiple clean bills of health.”

Before it’s resolved, the best way to reach the city is “to pick up the plain, old telephone and give us a call,” he said.

Burnett said that he cannot access his city voicemail. “Keep calling your council member’s office if no one picks up,” he said.

All city employees reported to work on Wednesday. Young said that if the attack persists and desk workers can’t access digital components crucial in their daily work such as email, he will ask them to “go out and help us clean the city.”

Young also said that he would not pay the hackers any amount of money, calling it a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Young’s chief of staff and spokesperson Lester Davis noted that most residents would not feel an impact from the attack. Emergency services, like 311 and 911, are still operating as normal and have not been affected.

On top of inconveniencing the city, the attack serves as a reminder that civic life wasn’t always so digital, Burnett said.

“I'm a millennial,” he laughed. “So I'm used to thinking everything is over email and phones, so you know, here’s a reminder that there was a time before this one.”

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.