The Atlanta ransomware attack that took IT systems and computers out of action and brought many municipal operations to a grinding halt has proven particularly costly for the city.

On March 22, 2018, ransomware was deployed on its network forcing a shutdown of PCs and systems used by some 8,000 employees. Those employees were forced to work on pen and paper while attempts were made to recover from the attack. With IT systems offline, many municipal services stopped entirely.

The attackers sent a ransom demand for approximately $50,000. By paying the ransom, the city could potentially have been given the keys to unlock the files encrypted by the SamSam ransomware variant used in the attack. However, there are never any guarantees decryption keys will be supplied. Many victims have received further demands for payment after the initial demand was paid, and there have been many cases where the attackers have not made good on their promise and did not supply any valid keys.

It is unclear whether the ransom payment was made, although that appears unlikely. The payment portal used by the attackers went offline shortly after the attack and the cleanup costs following the Atlanta ransomware attack have been considerable. The high cost suggests the city opted to recover its data and restore systems from backups.

In the immediate aftermath of the Atlanta ransomware attack, the city awarded emergency procurements to eight firms to assist with recovery efforts. The total cost of those services was $2,667,328.

The city spent $60,000 on incident response services, $50,000 on crisis communication services, and $60,000 on support staff augmentation. Secureworks was paid $650,000 for emergency incident response services, Two contracts were awarded to assist with its Microsoft cloud and Windows environments, including migrating certain on-premises systems to the cloud. Those two contracts totaled $1,330,000 and a further $600,000 was paid to Ernst & Young for advisory services for cyber incident response. The $2.6 million cost could rise further still.

Paying the threat actors who conducted the Atlanta ransomware attack could well have seen sizable savings made, although it would certainly not have cost $50,000. Some of the costs associated with recovery from the attack have been spent on improving security to prevent further incidents, and certainly to make recovery less costly. Those costs would still have to be recovered even if the ransom was paid.

What is clear however, is that $2.6 million paid on reactive services following a ransomware attack will not give tremendous value for money. Had that amount been spent on preventative measures prior to the attack, the city would have got substantially more value for every buck spent. Some industry experts have estimated the cost of preventative measures rather than reactive measures would have been just 20% of the price that was paid.

The attack revealed the City of Atlanta was unprepared and had failed to implement appropriate defenses. The city was vulnerable to attack due to the failure to apply security best practices, such as closing open ports on its systems and segmenting its network. The vulnerabilities made an attack far to easy. However, it would be unfair to single out the city as many others are in exactly the same position.

This incident should therefore serve as a stern warning to other cities and organizations that the failure to adequately prepare for an attack, implement appropriate defenses, and apply security best practices will likely lead to an incredibly costly attack.

It may be difficult to find the money to spend on ransomware attack prevention measures, but it will be much harder to find five times the cost to implement defenses and respond after an attack has taken place.