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Congress warned about cybersecurity after attempted ransomware attack on House

TechCrunch TechCrunch 10/05/2016 Kate Conger

Congressional gridlock can usually be blamed on stubborn representatives and senators. But a new string of ransomware attacks on the House of Representatives could stall legislation more effectively than party infighting or a filibuster.

In an email provided to TechCrunch, the House technology service desk warned representatives of increased ransomware attacks on the House network. The email warns that attackers are focusing their efforts on third-party email apps, like YahooMail and Gmail, and tells representatives that access to YahooMail will be blocked on House networks.

“When a user clicks on the link in the attack e-mail, the malware encrypts all files on that computer, including shared files, making them unusable until a ‘ransom’ is paid. The recent attacks have focused on using .js files attached as zip files to e-mail that appear to come from known senders,” the email notes.

Ransomware is typically delivered via email and works by encrypting a victim’s data and demanding payment in exchange for the decryption key. Several major hospitals have recently been targeted in ransomware attacks.

It certainly sounds like a representative or one of their staff members fell victim to one of the attacks, which occurred in late April, but a spokesperson for the House Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) declined to confirm whether or not the ransomware attacks were successful. If a representative’s data was ransomed, it’s not clear whether the ransom would be paid — the FBI cautions against giving in to ransomware demands.

The CAO spokesperson also said that the potential for ransomware attacks on the House is similar to any other large organization. But of course, the House isn’t Walmart or Goldman Sachs — it’s a major legislative body. A successful ransomware attack could lock down draft bills, memos, representatives’ emails and employee information.

The technology service desk has warned representatives about phishing and cautioned them to be wary when opening attachments or links from emails. Several Congressional staffers told TechCrunch that their offices had also recirculated information about cyber hygiene.

The block of YahooMail on the Hill appears to be ongoing, and it seems that the CAO may have instituted a widespread ban on other apps, as well.

Cloakroom and Capitol Bells founder Ted Henderson told TechCrunch that his apps, which allow Congressional staffers to chat about politics and receive live alerts of votes and hearings, have been caught up in the block. Henderson said he tested several other apps and found that many hosted by Google’s App Engine were blocked.

“Of course this action of theirs is especially painful for our online community, but I also find it very irresponsible for the HIR to take such a casual position to blocking speech and open data on Capitol Hill,” Henderson says.

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