After a Major Cyber Attack, Does the Public Deserve an Explanation?

Atlanta City Hall

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The ransomware that crippled Atlanta raises unanswered questions about how to communicate with citizens after a cyber-attack.

It has been more than two months since the city of Atlanta suffered a cyberattack that left most computer systems down for days, and some for weeks. Still, little is public about how the city plans to set things right over the long-term.

While the city has been communicative about working with the FBI and private partners to get systems back online, few details are known—beyond the $5 million in emergency authorizations to recover from the attack—about what is being done to ensure it never happens again.

Which leads to the real question: does the public need to know more?

Code for Atlanta, a local chapter of Code for America, wants the city to disclose more information. The group of civic-minded technologists has put forward a petition for the city to publish a “blameless post-mortem.”

“As the name suggests, a blameless post-mortem does not seek to point fingers,” the petitioners wrote on their change.org petition. “Instead, its aim is to create a fair and just accounting of what mistakes were made in the lead up to the failure and what was done in response.”

The idea comes from the private sector, according to Luigi Ray-Montanez, a co-founder of Code for Atlanta.

“In the software industry, it’s now considered a best practice after any software failure or website outage or data loss,” Ray-Montanez said in an interview with Route Fifty. He explained that a blameless post-mortem provides an opportunity to “truly learn from what went wrong.”

Ray-Montanez said he recognizes “there are political risks.” However, he argued by making it clear the process is not to assign blame, but “trying to create an environment where the facts can be laid out honestly and clearly,” citizens—and others who may be at risk—can get a better assessment and better secure themselves against future attacks.

There are, however, real dangers in making certain information public.

A cybersecurity incident is a difficult thing to manage for any organization. Disclosing information about the cyberattack could not only open Atlanta and its citizens up to additional attacks, but also give other hackers ideas about how to wreak havoc on different cities. Couple that with expectations of public disclosure, and things get tricky.

Like the floods in Ellicott City, people want to know what happened, why it happened, and what’s being done to fix it,” Thomas MacLellan, director policy and government affairs for Symantec, a Fortune 500 company specializing in cybersecurity, said. “But it’s different than a disaster, because a disaster doesn’t adapt the way that a cyber-adversary adapts.”

MacLellan agrees, though, that absent some clear failure it's best to learn from the experience rather than start firing people.

“When someone makes a mistake or something doesn’t go right there’s two ways to look at it,” MacLellan said. “One is, someone’s left holding the bag because they completely screwed up; the other way to look at it is almost as an investment in future success.”

According to MacLellan, Atlanta likely “has learned some valuable lessons,” and "sharing information and lessons is what's most important from a security side." However, he warned, it must be done carefully.

“You have to share it with the appropriate folks, in the appropriate way, that can help others learn those lessons.”

Keisha Lance-Bottoms, who was 80 days into her job as Atlanta mayor when the incident occurred, said the incident took her by “surprise” at a recent event in New York City. While she thought during the campaign she had discussed every issue under the sun, “cybersecurity was not a topic of conversation.”

“While it's something that's ever present and should be a top of mind for us as elected officials, it's not the thing that people see, and that our communities are discussing,” Lance-Bottoms said during a panel at SmartCities NY. “So the biggest challenge really has been putting that into a context where people understand why it matters to their community.”

Atlanta refused to pay the $51,000 ransom the hackers demanded to remove the ransomware, which, Lance-Bottoms told the crowd, means they “have had to start from scratch in a lot of ways.”

Two weeks ago, Chief Operating Officer Richard Cox told local public radio station WABE that “90 percent” of functions are back to normal. In the interview, Cox declined to give a timeline on recovery for security reasons.

Route Fifty reached out to Atlanta over the past two months with hopes to speak with Chief Information Security Officer Kelvin Brooks, but was told by a spokesperson, "Due to ongoing security concerns and still-active investigations, we cannot comment on a number of matters at this time on the recommendation of our counsel, security vendors, and federal partners."

Mitch Herckis is Senior Editor and Director of Strategic Initiatives for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

NEXT STORY: The Difficult Balance of Transparency and Privacy for Local Governments

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