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Baltimore Held Hostage in Ransomware Attack

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  • A ransomware attack in Baltimore has shut down numerous government servers, preventing citizens from using essential services and blocking city employees from accessing their emails and computers.
  • The attack has been going on for two weeks and Baltimore has refused to pay the ransom.
  • This is the second attack on Baltimore in the last 15 months.
  • A similar attack in Atlanta last year cost the city an estimated $17 million in fixes.

Cyber Attack

Government computer servers in Baltimore, Maryland have been held hostage by hackers for two weeks, preventing citizens from accessing essential services and impending government functions.

The attack occurred on May 7, when hackers breached nearly 10,000 government computers and demanded the city pay them 13 bitcoins, now about $100,000, to get their system networks back.

According to the Baltimore Sun, who obtained a copy of the ransom note, the hackers said they would increase the ransom if the city did not pay in four days. If the city did not pay in 10 days, they said it would not get their information and data back at all.

Both those deadlines have come and gone, and the city has refused to pay the ransom, meaning that the servers that were shut down by the attack are still offline.

The hackers used ransomware called RobbinHood, which uses software to block access to servers. In order to get that access back, you need a sort of “digital key.” If the ransom is paid, the hackers would give the city that key. According to experts, replicating the key without the help of the hackers is essentially impossible.

Baltimore officials were first alerted to the ransomware attack when the Department of Public Works reported that their email servers had been shut down.

Once the city realized what was going on, the Office of Information Technology shut down most of the city’s non-emergency system, so the attack would not spread further.

Impact

It is not clear how widespread the attack was because the infected systems are still down.

City officials have said that emergency services like 911 dispatch were not affected by the attack, but it has still impacted the citizens of Baltimore and city employees.

Certain systems are down, so residents have not been able to access essential services, like the websites where they pay water bills, property taxes, and parking tickets.

City employees have been locked out of their emails for two weeks now, forcing them to use their own laptops and personal e-mail addresses to get work done.

The issue of government employees using private servers and personal accounts could raise questions about transparency and accountability, as those are practices usually not allowed under normal circumstances.

The attack has also hurt Baltimore’s property market because officials cannot access systems required for real estate sales.

“We are well into the restorative process, and as I’ve indicated, are cooperating with the FBI on their investigation. Due to that investigation, we are not able to share information about the attack.” Baltimore Mayor Jack Young said in a press release. “As I’ve mentioned previously, we engaged leading industry cybersecurity experts who are on-site 24-7 working with us.”

Mayor Young did not say how bad the damage was, nor did he give a definitive timeline for recovery.

“Some of the restoration efforts also require that we rebuild certain systems to make sure that when we restore business functions,” he said. “I am not able to provide you with an exact timeline on when all systems will be restored.”

Other Instances of Cyber Attacks

The attack on Baltimore has raised questions about the importance of safeguarding cities against cyber attacks. This is especially true for Baltimore, as the ransomware marks the second cyber attack the city has had in the last 15 months.

Just last March, a different attack shut down the city’s 911 system for nearly a whole day, forcing dispatchers to give first-responders essential information about emergencies by phone instead of electronically.

While any number of cities or companies are susceptible to being hacked, some experts have argued that Baltimore is especially vulnerable.

“I think broadly they are not prepared for these sorts of things, they do not have the budget,” said Bill Siegel, a chief executive at Coveware told the Wallstreet Journal. His firm helps various entities that have experienced cyber attacks and he said, “I think it’s pretty obvious that they have not been able to stay ahead of it.”

That is not for lack of trying. After last year’s attack, Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott pushed city officials to invest in strengthening the city’s cyber defenses.

According to Ars Technica, Baltimore’s information security manager also warned that the city needed a formal policy to address cybersecurity during budget hearings last year.

However, the budget did not include any funding for that policy or any other investments in information technology infrastructure. Now it’s coming back to bite them.

That said, Baltimore is not alone. Just the last year, more than 20 different municipalities have been hit by cyber attacks. Last month, Greenville, North Carolina was hit with a similar attack that used the same RobbinHood ransomware.

Last year, Atlanta made headlines when hackers demanded that the city pay $50,000 in bitcoins in another ransomware attack. Like Baltimore, both Greenville and Atlanta refused to pay the ransom.

While that’s exactly what experts and law enforcement officials recommend, often times, the costs of a cyber attack can be much higher than the ransom requested.

According to a report obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV, the attack in Atlanta ended up costing nearly $17 million to fix.

Unlike Baltimore, Greenville and Atlanta had insurance to cover cybersecurity incidents, so hypothetically, Baltimore could pay even more than Atlanta to restore the city after the hack.

Cybersecurity experts had said it probably will take months for Baltimore to recover, and the costs are expected to be extremely high, which is a burden that could end up in the hands of taxpayers.

See what others are saying: (Vox) (The Wall Street Journal) (The Baltimore Sun)

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Scott Peterson’s Murder Convictions To Be Re-examined

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  • Scott Peterson was convicted in 2004 of murdering his wife, Laci, and their unborn child.
  • He was sentenced to death for the crimes, but the California Supreme Court overturned the death sentence in August of this year after finding that the trial court improperly dismissed potential jurors. The court did, however, uphold the convictions.
  • Now, the CA Supreme Court has ordered the San Mateo County Superior Court to review the convictions and determine whether Peterson should be given a new trial on the grounds that one juror “committed prejudicial misconduct by not disclosing her prior involvement with other legal proceedings.”
  • That juror had not disclosed the fact that she was granted a restraining order in 2000 against her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend for harassing her when she was pregnant.

Peterson’s Death Sentence Was Previously Overturned

The California Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered a review of Scott Peterson’s 2004 convictions for murdering his wife, Laci, and their unborn son.

Peterson was sentenced to death by lethal injection for those crimes in 2005, but in August of this year, the California Supreme Court overturned his death sentence. 

We reject Peterson’s claim that he received an unfair trial as to guilt and thus affirm his convictions for murder,“ the court said at the time. “But before the trial began, the trial court made a series of clear and significant errors in jury selection.”

As far as what errors the court is talking about, it said the trial judge wrongly discharged prospective jurors who expressed opposition to capital punishment but said they would be willing to impose it.

Court to Decide on Potential New Trial

Now, weeks later, the California Supreme Court has ordered that the case return to the San Mateo County Superior Court to determine whether Peterson should be given a new trial on the ground that a juror “committed prejudicial misconduct by not disclosing her prior involvement with other legal proceedings, including but not limited to being the victim of a crime.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, that juror had not shared the fact that she was granted a restraining order in 2000 against her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend for harassing her when she was pregnant. 

Peterson’s lawyers even say that when all potential jurors were asked whether they had ever been a victim of a crime or involved in a lawsuit, the juror said no to both questions.

They also say she was one of the two holdouts for convicting Peterson of first-degree murder for killing his unborn child, with the jury ultimately convicting Peterson of the first-degree murder of Laci and the second-degree murder of the unborn child. 

For now, it’s up to the San Mateo Court to decide what happens next, but the California Supreme Court did say that prosecutors could again seek the death penalty for Peterson at a new hearing.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Los Angeles Times) (NBC News)

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CDC Warns Household Gatherings Are Driving Coronavirus Spread as U.S. Cases Increase

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  • Coronavirus cases are on the rise in the United States, and the country could be on track to climb to a third peak.
  • Nearly 60,000 new cases were reported on Wednesday. The daily average of reported cases has gone up 23% compared to two weeks ago, according to data from the New York Times.
  • The CDC is warning that small household gatherings are contributing to the spread of COVID-19 and that people should be extra vigilant heading into the holidays.
  • Superspreading events in New York, New Jersey, and elsewhere have also led to dozens of cases. Some of these events were held at colleges, while another was at a sweet 16 where people opted to not wear masks.

Small Gatherings Linked to COVID-19 Spread

Coronavirus cases are on the increase in many areas of the United States and could even be climbing towards a potential third peak. With this, experts are warning that household gatherings could be driving the spread. 

The U.S. as a whole reported nearly 60,000 new cases on Wednesday. The daily average of reported cases has gone up 23% compared to two weeks ago, according to data from the New York Times. Cases are especially on the incline in the midwest. 

While cases are not as high as they were in July, when the country saw its peak in infections, the upward trend is still troubling. Health leaders are warning that gatherings are playing a role in transmission and that people should be hyper-aware as the holidays roll around. 

“In the public square, we’re seeing a higher degree of vigilance and mitigation steps in many jurisdictions,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said in a phone call obtained by CNN. “But what we’re seeing as the increasing threat right now is actually acquisition of infection through small household gatherings. Particularly with Thanksgiving coming up, we think it’s really important to stress the vigilance of these continued mitigation steps in the household setting.”

In the last few weeks, gatherings leading to superspreading events have been making headlines. The most famous of which is the White House outbreak that started in the Rose Garden during Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court. This resulted in the President, First Lady, and numerous other White House officials becoming infected with COVID-19. 

Superspreading Events 

Superspreading events are happening all around the country, though. 37 coronavirus cases are now connected to a sweet 16 party that was held in Long Island at the end of September. That party violated emergency health codes by hosting 81 people, according to NBC News. Local guidelines state that gatherings cannot exceed 50 people or 50% of a venue’s capacity, whichever is smaller. 

Reports indicate that social distancing and mask-wearing were nonexistent at the event. The party was held at a local hotel which is now facing two fines. One comes from the state of New York for $10,000 and the other is a $2,000 fine from Suffolk County. 

In New Rochelle, New York an outbreak among athletes at Iona College has caused classes to move online. The school released a statement on Sunday explaining that the outbreak is tied to a single isolated event. Local reports indicate that this event has gotten as many as 65 people on the school’s campus sick. 

In New Jersey, an event has led to 125 coronavirus cases at Monmouth University. The school released a statement Friday explaining that the campus had a notable increase in cases, warranting thorough contact tracing. 

“It appears that this increase in cases among students was tied to an off-campus event hosted two weeks ago,” the school said. “An overwhelming majority of the recent cases we have seen can be traced back to this isolated super-spreader event.”

Monmouth University will now be increasing test efforts as a result. 

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (ABC News) (The Hill)

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Early Voting Sees Record-Breaking Turnouts, Some States Already Surpass 2016 Numbers

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  • Early voting turnout for the 2020 Presidential Election, both by mail and in-person, has broken records across multiple states.
  • California and Texas, for example, have each surpassed 1 million votes cast, smashing previous records at this point in an election.
  • Battleground states have been particularly affected, with many having either surpassed their 2016 early voting numbers or are on the verge of doing soon.

Record Breaking Turnout

The 2020 Presidential Election has set records with its early-voting turnout in multiple states and is on track to do the same in nearly all of the 39 states where early voting has started.

Likely fueling this trend is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has prompted states to expand mail-in voting efforts to accommodate those who wish to lower their chance of exposure.

California, for instance, reported that as of Thursday, over 1.7 million ballots have already been cast for 2020 Presidential election. That’s the most number of confirmed ballots collected at this point in any state election. Around 435,000 of those ballots are from Los Angeles county alone, so that number may skyrocket as the other populous areas of the state start having their ballots collected.

It’s possible that this election will have the highest voter turnout in the state because California still has 20 million more ballots to go.

Early Voting in General

Outside of California, there’s been historic early voting numbers. While not every state has sent mail-in ballots to all voters, many have opened up for early voting by mail or in-person. Texas, for example, opened up early in-person voting Wednesday while mail-in voting has been happening for about a month now. As of Wednesday, about 649,000 ballots have been cast either by mail or in-person in the state’s 10 largest counties.

Those counties represent 57% of registered voters. To put that in perspective, as of the first day of in-person voting in 2016, only about 497,000 ballots were cast in those same counties. Across the entire state, over 1 million votes have been cast so far.

Democrats are hoping that these historic numbers are a good sign for them; Texas Democratic Party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement, “Texas Democrats are rising. After the first day of early voting, it’s clear that energy is on our side and Texans are ready to turn our state blue.”

“With the energy seen among Texas Democrats, we will win the White House, take our John Cornyn, flip several Congressional seats, break the supermajority in the Texas Senate, flip the Texas House, and win hundreds of local elections across the state.”

Republicans weren’t too worried, saying that these numbers seemed to be on-par with a competitive election. Their voter-data expert told the Texas Tribune, “Right now all we have is one day of early voting under our belts, and we have many more to go, so I’d equate it to a horse race. The Democrats got a good start out the gate, but we’ve still got a whole race to run.”

While Texas is unlikely to flip, there are some important battleground states that have seen huge early-voting numbers. Take Pennsylvania, which has seen more early voters this election than in the entirety of 2016.

Other battleground states, such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, Florida, and Michigan are also on par to pass their 2016 early-voting numbers according to local election data.

In Florida, this is particularly notable because so far the state has only had absentee voting. In-person early voting doesn’t begin until October 19.

See What Others Are Saying: (Los Angeles Times) (Texas Tribune) (Wall Street Journal)

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