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As Atlanta Reels From Cyberattack, Mecklenburg County Knows Recovery Takes Time

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WFAE file photo
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Person using laptop computer.

As Atlanta struggles to recover from a cyberattack last week that knocked out city computer systems, one place officials turned to for advice was Mecklenburg County. A similar attack here in December kept some systems offline for weeks - and the county is still working on security improvements.

Atlanta and federal officials are investigating the March 22 ransomware attack, which encrypted data on city servers.  That’s just what happened to Mecklenburg County the first week of December.

Both attacks shut down key services like bill-paying and police arrest processing. And in both, the hacker or hackers demanded ransom payments to unlock the scrambled data. In Atlanta, it was $51,000. Mecklenburg's was around $30,000.

Dena Diorio
Dena Diorio

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio got national attention when she refused to pay. Instead, the county spent weeks restoring about 200 systems from backups - and upgrading cybersecurity.

"All the systems are back up and we feel really good about our ability to bring them as quickly as we did," Diorio said this week. "And now really we're looking at lessons learned and where we need to harden some of our, you know, firewalls and things."

One major difference between the two attacks: Atlanta's hackers appear to have accessed servers through a security loophole. In Mecklenburg, an employee clicked on a bogus "phishing" email that sent an infection onto county systems.  

Still, to Diorio, the Atlanta attack is eerily familiar.  

"I'm not sure that they've said exactly what happened, but I do know that our IT folks said that Atlanta actually reached out to us. … It's what everybody does: You know you go back to people who have been through it, see what you can find out, what lessons they've learned, and see if it can help you move forward," Diorio said.

At the time of the December attack, the county was in the midst of a three-year plan to upgrade security, under newly hired technology chief Keith Gregg. Now, Diorio says she’ll ask county commissioners soon for more money to prevent cyberattacks – she wouldn’t say how much.

Meanwhile, county officials say they're still calculating how much December's attack has cost so far.

The City of Charlotte avoided trouble in December, in part because officials got an early warning from the county. And like the county, it's also putting up new defenses, according to a statement Thursday from a spokeswoman: “The City of Charlotte continually evaluates new technology procedures and protocols, and has recently implemented technology upgrades to strengthen cybersecurity measures.”