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"Holy moly!": Texas' fight against ransomware hack

Whisler answered the phone. Borger's computer system was hacked.

Files were froze out of the hands of workers. Demands for money were spewed by printers. Residents couldn't pay their water bills for several days. The government couldn't process their payroll and police couldn't find certain records. Similar scenes were seen across Texas in almost two dozen communities that were hit by cyberattacks. Officials ultimately linked to Russia-based criminal groups.

In 2019, ransomware had yet to emerge as one of the top national security concerns confronting the United States, an issue that would become the focus of a presidential summit between Washington and Moscow this year. The attacks on Texas were a sign of the growing threat, and provide a compelling example of what happens behind closed doors when small-town America is under attack.

According to interviews with people involved in the response and thousands of pages of documents, Texas communities were left struggling for days due to disruptions in core government services. Workers in small towns and cities also suffered frustrations from the cyberattack. The Associated Press also gained new information about the attack's extent and victims, including a Air Force base that lost access to a database used for law enforcement and a city that was forced to run its water supply system manually.

In recent months, a ransomware attack led to gasoline shortages. Another, tied to the same hacking gang that attacked the Texas communities, threatened meat supplies. The Texas attacks, which were not like other prominent cases, did not require ransom payments.

"It was just scary feeling," Whisler, Borger’s emergency management coordinator, said in an interview.

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