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City & State investigates: How local governments are handling a threat they can’t even see

  • 7 days ago

The proliferation of cyberattacks has prompted Pennsylvania municipalities to take extra steps to secure their systems.

In 2018, an Allentown city employee took a city laptop with him on a work trip. During that trip, he opened a phishing email that ultimately cost the city more than $1 million in repairs to its digital infrastructure. Hackers, based in Ukraine, hit the Lehigh Valley city with malware known as Emotet – which the federal Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency ominously describes as “an advanced Trojan primarily spread via phishing email attachments and links that, once clicked, launch the payload” – that began to self-replicate, steal credentials and work its way across their computer systems. 

“A colleague came down the hall and said, ‘Hey, my account’s locked’ – and I went to sign in and found that my account was locked” as well, Matthew Leibert, Allentown’s longtime chief information officer, recalled of the moment he knew something was seriously wrong – a realization that hit him physically as well. “I definitely felt sick,” he added.

Four years – and millions of dollars of sunk costs later – his staff still struggles to keep up with the monitoring and maintenance required to keep their systems safe for this city of more than 120,000 residents.

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