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Florida Mayor Defends Decision to Pay $460,000 Ransom to Criminals Who Hacked City Computers


The mayor of the small Florida town of Lake City says he made the right decision to pay criminal computer hackers a ransom of $460,000 to ensure the return of the town’s computer files, despite criticism the payments will only lead to more such attacks.

“It was possible we never could have never recovered the information that was locked up,” Lake City Mayor Stephen Witt told Brian Ross on the Law&Crime Network program Brian Ross Investigates.

Rob Knake, the former director for cybersecurity policy at the National Security Council, expressed concern that the decision will have broader implications.

“The right decision for Lake City was probably the wrong decision for the nation because that money is going to go to what is going to be even more sophisticated attacks.”

Lake City, Florida was one of dozens of towns, cities, hospitals and schools who had to face the decision of whether to pay a ransom to seek the return of vital documents and files that, essentially, had been taken hostage by computer hackers. Some schools in New York have opened late this week because of so-called ransomware attacks.

In the case of Lake City, the municipality’s insurance company actually covered all of the cost, with the exception of a $10,000 deductible. The mayor says the town’s voters have supported his decision.

The city of Atlanta was hit hard by what federal authorities identified as the SamSam Virus, which was linked to an operation based in Iran. Two Iranians have been indicted by a federal grand jury in the scheme, but experts say it is unlikely they will ever be brought to justice in the United States.

“They’re operating from criminal safe havens around the world,” said Knake, the co-author of a new book on cybercrime, The Fifth Domain. “We have very little hope they will ever see the inside of a U.S. courtroom.”

Knake said that among the most active users of ransomware are criminals and government operators in Russia, North Korea and Iran.

“What we’ve done by allowing ransoms to be paid is essentially to help arm our adversaries,” Knake told Brian Ross Investigates. “So the next round may not be small cities,” he added. “The attacks are going to get more brazen and they’re going to get more capable over time.”

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