Texas Chief Information Officer Shares Lessons Learned from Ransomware Attack

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The 23 municipalities hit in a July ransomware attack put themselves at risk by failing “to follow good cyber hygiene,” the state’s CIO said.

NASHVILLE —The 23 Texas municipalities affected by a ransomware attack over the summer did not take proper cybersecurity precautions, making them vulnerable to intrusion while other government entities were protected, according to the state’s chief information officer.

Hackers went after a managed service provider that contracted with the municipalities but were only able to infiltrate those 23 networks, but not all of the provider’s customers, said Todd Kimbriel, the Texas Chief Information Officer.

“These 23 organizations were impacted because they failed to follow good cyber hygiene,” said Kimbriel, discussing the incident during the annual National Association of State Chief Information Officers convention in Nashville. “This particular provider had other organizations that were also connected in the same fashion and could have been impacted but because they follow good cyber hygiene they were not.”

Kimbriel and Nancy Rainosek, the state’s Chief Information Security Officer, discussed the state’s response to the attack, including previous planning and coordination that enabled the state to mobilize the Texas Army and Air National Guard.

“Preparation is the key. Basic cyber hygiene is the key,” he said, advising government IT departments to make sure patches are applied and passwords are strong. “These are silly little things but it’s not really more complex than that. There is no secret sauce.”

Some of the affected cities said they were able to quickly rebound from the attack. Two key preparations also enabled Texas to respond to and contain the attack relatively quickly, Kimbriel said.

First, the state’s Department of Information Resources, which led the response to the attack, was able to quickly deploy extra resources after Gov. Greg Abbott declared an emergency in response to the cyberattack, he said.

It was the type of scenario the CIO’s office had planned for. The summer before the attack, the state held a cyberattack simulation that pinpointed challenges that various entities would encounter during such a scenario. Through that exercise, the state realized it was critical to enable the governor to declare an emergency regarding a cyberattack so that the Texas National Guard could brought in. 

In response to the July attack, the Texas National Guard deployed six-man cybersecurity teams who specialized in cybersecurity responses to assist the affected municipalities. 

A similar declaration was not made in Colorado after a 2018 hack on the state’s department of transportation until 10 days after the attack.

Texas also learned the importance of having a cyber incident response plan in place. Rainosek had developed a response plan two years prior that the state was able to pull directly off the shelf and utilize during the summer’s incident. Because of this, it was less than eight hours from the first report of the cyberattack until the state operations center was activated and less than 24 hours before all 23 cities were contacted, Kimbriel said.

“If we didn’t have the legislative authority for the governor to declare a cyber disaster and we didn’t have the incident response plan—totally different,” Kimbriel said. “Those are two key things for a state to pursue having in effect and in place.”

Based on his experience with the July cyberattack, Kimbriel advised other states to think about how they would scale up their response based on the number of entities affected.

Cybersecurity officials in Texas had to deploy to each of the 23 municipalities to assess the situation in person.

“What are you going to do if you get 100 locations?” Kimbriel said. “The numbers and the ability to scale is really critical and from a planning perspective you have to think about how you will be able to do that.”