As hackers hold 22 Texas towns for ransom, Dallas needs a data defense


Editor’s note: This story was originally published Aug. 1 and has been updated with details about ransomeware attacks on twenty-two Texas towns.  

Does this scenario frighten you? A secret organization hacks into the city’s computer system and infects it with a virus that shuts it down until its demands are met. The city does its best to quarantine the infection, but it can’t stop it entirely and services ground to a halt. The choice: Pay a ransom or wait it out for months until cyber-security teams can restore systems to order.

It sounds like some future dystopian nightmare, but it is not fiction: as the New York Times has reported, it’s happening in twenty-two Texas towns right now. The attacks are prompting even unaffected towns to preemptively shut down services like 911 emergency systems. Major ransomware attacks have hit cities from Atlanta to Amarillo to Baltimore.

Dallas itself has already been hacked, though on a less punishing scale. Recall that in April 2017 all 156 of the city’s emergency sirens were set off by hackers on a Friday night. The city managed to turn them off, but that is small consolation.

These attacks on information technology are offered here as a bit of context for Mayor Eric Johnson’s campaign pledge to make data a centerpiece of his administration. This seemed a bit of a political dodge to me, a means of evading policy questions — “we need more data” — in the name of a seemingly uncontroversial, motherhood-and-apple pie issue. Who doesn’t think more data is a good thing?

Be careful what you wish for.

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Mark Lamster, Architecture Critic

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