RICHMOND, Va., (AP) — Police Chief Will Cunningham came to work four years ago to find that his six-officer department was the victim of a crime.
Hackers had taken advantage of a weak password to break in and encrypt the files of the department in Roxana, a small town in Illinois near St. Louis, and were demanding $6,000 of bitcoin.
“I was shocked, I was surprised, frustrated,” Cunningham said.
Police departments big and small have been plagued for years by foreign hackers breaking into networks and causing varying level of mischief, from disabling email systems to more serious problems with 911 centers temporarily knocked offline. In some cases important case files have gone missing.
But things have taken a dark turn recently. Criminal hackers are increasingly using brazen methods to increase pressure on law enforcement agencies to pay ransoms, including leaking or threatening to leak highly sensitive and potentially life-threatening information.
The threat of ransomware has risen to a level that’s impossible to ignore, with hardly a day going by without news of a hospital, private business or government agency being victimized. On Saturday, the operator of a major pipeline system that transports fuel across the East Coast said it had been victimized by a ransomware attack and had halted all pipeline operations to deal with the threat.
The increasingly defiant attacks on law enforcement agencies underscore how little ransomware gangs fear repercussions.
In Washington, D.C., a Russian-speaking ransomware syndicate called Babuk hacked into the network of the city’s police department and threatened to leak the identities of confidential informants unless an unspecified ransom was paid.
A day after the initial threat was posted in late April, the gang tried to spur payment by leaking personal information of some police officers taken from background checks, including details of officers’ past drug use, finances and — in at least one incident — of past sexual abuse.
Similar threats were made recently against a small police force in Maine. The police department in Dade City, a small town in Florida, currently has many of its files posted on the dark web by the ransomware gang Avaddon after the city decided not to pay the $450,000 worth of bitcoin that was demanded. Leaked files show pictures of a dead body from a crime scene.
Ransomware gangs have been leaking sensitive data from victims for well over a year, but experts said they’ve not seen such aggressive new tactics used before against police departments.
“It should be a wake-up call to government that it finally needs to take strong and decisive action,” said Brett Callow, a threat analyst at the security firm Emsisoft.
Making the ransomware attacks potentially more damaging, police are now able to collect and store more personal information than ever before through advances in surveillance equipment and technologies such as artificial intelligence and facial recognition…