Mayor: Progress in Ending Pensacola 'Cyber-Battle'

Dec 16, 2019

Credit Flickr

Still no word from Pensacola officials, on the cyber-attack involving the city’s computer systems. But Mayor Grover Robinson did have an update of sorts, at Monday’s weekly news conference.

“We are, by no means, the first city in Florida; there have been dozens and dozens of cities that have been hit in Florida, and since we’ve been hit New Orleans has been hit and a variety of cities have been hit, and they’ll continue to be hit,” said Mayor Grover Robinson.

City services are for the most part restored, says Robinson, after being disconnected last week in the attack on the computer system.

“Online bill payments for Pensacola Energy and sanitation services are now available; Pensacola Energy and 311 call centers are operational,” the mayor said. “Email servers and land lines have been restored, and we’re continuing to assess the situation and will provide updates to the public moving forward, including any potential impacts to customers.”

The city made-do during the siege, going back to pen-and-paper, and running a city council meeting offline.

“I’d like to thank the public for their patience; and I’d especially like to thank our technical resource staff,” said Robinson. “They’ve worked to restore the network. Oftentimes we talk about ‘first responders;’ I can tell you they people we have in IT are just as heroic in what they’ve been doing; spending time up here to get everything back up and running.”

The city confirmed the attack involved ransomware, which takes computer data “hostage” and usually includes a demand for some form of payment to release it. Earlier reports placed the ransom at one million dollars.

The Mayor declined comment.

“This is a criminal investigation; we’ve been advised by those who are investigating this to not discuss details,” said Robinson. “When we’re told we can do that and when the investigation is no longer an open investigation, our government will release everything – even closed-door -- we’ll eventually release when they’re ready.”

Robinson did say that no ransom has been paid so far, and that the city’s getting some extra help. 

“We have hired an outside firm to come in and audit what we have, and where do we go from here; we were approached a couple of weeks ago about [insurance], and obviously we then had this issue. They start today whether we had the attack or not, they were going to  be looking at cyber-insurance; now that we had the attack, it’ll be definitely at the top of the list.”

The firm – Deloitte-Touche -- was hired without going through the city’s normal bid procedures.

“Our whole deal is we need to get moving fast; we didn’t have time to wait for a bid to go to that, Robinson said. “And we have the ability to piggy-back off other government service contracts; we bid directly off that and got them moving and they’re already to work.”

The University of West Florida’s Cyber Security Center is also lending a hand, says the mayor. Center Director Eman El-Sheikh says one major concern is the amount, if any, of personal data that could be in danger.

“I think another key thing for governments and for organizations that do have critical operations is to have a cyber incident response plan in place, and to actually put it to use,” said El-Sheikh. “It’s very important to have as part of your continuity of operations.”

El-Sheikh says such a plan could save a lot of work and headaches if hackers go after the system – in other words, what all has to happen, when?

“The key is going to be identify, protect against it and report and do all the necessary operational procedures as quickly as possible,” said El-Sheikh. “Time-to-completion is critical when in a cyberattack, because you can limit exposure to other systems or routing through the network to gain access to other things.”

There’s no real timeline for wrapping up the investigation, says Mayor Grover Robinson. The FBI is the lead agency, but the mayor added that at some point, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement could become involvedity