Letter from London: Ransomware is wreaking havoc in Hackney

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Vicki Bates, a retail worker who lives in east London, has been furloughed twice during the coronavirus pandemic and says she is owed nearly £1,000 ($1,400) in housing benefit by her local authority. She has been unable to log into her account on Hackney Council’s website since October 2020 and describes her predicament as the culmination of months of administrative errors.

“I really rely on those payments to be able to get things for my daughter,” she told me, during a telephone conversation. “We’ve got her school uniform to buy in the next couple of months. That is a large chunk of money and a bit of a worry.”

Bates is one of tens of thousands of Hackney residents — the borough is home to some 280,000 people and 10,000 businesses — who have been affected by a crippling ransomware attack on the council’s website. (In the interest of full disclosure, I live in Hackney and use the website regularly.) The breach took place in October 2020, disabling a number of vital local services, including systems that allow residents to access social security benefits, and pay rent and council tax.

Over the past few years, ransomware attacks on public and private institutions, including councils, utility companies and banks, have become an increasingly common form of online terrorism. In late 2020, dozens of U.S. hospitals and healthcare organizations were hit by malicious code distributed by cyber-criminals. Security analysts said the hacks were tied to a Russian gang known as UNC 1878 or Wizard Spider

Large corporations and financial institutions have the means to pay off ransomware gangs. For example, Brazil-based JBS SA, the world’s largest meat processing company, gave the equivalent of $11m to hackers who broke into its computer system in June. 

Ransomware attacks on public institutions like Hackney council have become common in the last few years.

However, U.K. local authority budgets have been progressively slashed since the financial crisis of 2008, rendering most councils incapable of spending such large sums of money, even if they could get past the miles of red tape necessary to do so. Hackney has faced some of the most brutal cuts in…

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