A massive 72% of state and local government organisations attacked by ransomware had their data encrypted – 7% more than the cross-sector average.In fact, according to Sophos’s “The State of Ransomware in State and Local Government 2022” report, only 20% of state and local government organisations were able to stop the ransomware attack before data could be encrypted – significantly less than the cross-sector average of 31% (8% had their data held for ransom but not encrypted).

However, at the same time, the government sector had one of the lowest attack rates with only 58% hit by ransomware in 2021.

“Traditionally, government organisations haven’t been prime targets for ransomware attackers, since they don’t have as much money as traditional businesses, and criminal groups are reticent to attract attention from law enforcement,” says Chester Wisniewski, principal research scientist at Sophos.

“However, when these organisations do get hit, they have little in the way of protection because they don’t have the budget for additional, in-depth cybersecurity support, including threat hunting teams or security operations centres. And, there are a couple reasons for this.

“One is that, while they collect a large amount of sensitive information, they need to keep this information easily accessible.

“Second, they need to spend the majority of their budget on their actual municipality. Taxpayers can see if the streets are clean or if their schools are reaching their education goals. They can’t ‘see’ a cyberattack or understand why a managed detection and response (MDR) provider might be necessary to defeat ransomware.”

In addition to experiencing a high encryption rate, the government sector also experienced a significant drop in the amount of encrypted data recovered after paying the ransom when compared to 2020–58% in 2021 versus 70% in 2020; this was also lower than the cross-sector average of 61%.

Additional findings include:

* 2021 saw a 70% rise in the number of ransomware attacks against local government organisations, with 58% targeted compared to 34% in 2020.

* The cost for government organisations to remediate an attack was three times the average ransom the sector paid.

“If we look at what happened with the city of Atlanta, Georgia, back in 2018, they ultimately ended up paying $17-million to recover from an attack that asked for $50 000 dollars in ransom,” says Wisniewski.

“This is often the case with local and state government organisations – they spend far more on recovering and catching up with current security practices than they do on the actual ransom demand, should they choose to pay it. While getting the initial buy-in may be hard, in the long term, pre-emptive cybersecurity measures are a far better alternative than bolstering defenses after an attack.”

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