China hacked MTA but failed to get control of NY subway: Ransomware cripples Martha’s Vineyard ferry


New York City‘s transit system was hacked by Chinese operatives in April, it emerged on Wednesday, as a ferry company taking passengers to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket confirmed that they too had been targeted by hackers.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) discovered that their computer systems had been accessed, but the hackers did not gain access to systems that control train cars, The New York Times reported, citing an internal MTA investigation.

Transit officials said riders were never at risk, and they do not believe passenger or employee data was compromised.

On Wednesday it emerged that New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) was attacked by Chinese hackers in April. The MTA said no passengers were at risk, and data was not stolen, but analysts are concerned at the news – the third hack of the MTA by a foreign agent in recent years, according to The New York Times

But the attack in New York showed once again just how exposed the United States’ infrastructure is to cyberattack.

On Tuesday the world’s largest meat processor was forced to close all nine of its beef plants in the United States, with many of its pork and poultry plants also affected

Last month, a ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline, which transports gas to nearly half the East Coast, triggered gas and jet-fuel shortages and panic buying.

And on Wednesday, the Steamship Authority, which operates ferries between the Massachusetts mainland and popular holiday islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, said they too had been hacked.

The website was still down on Wednesday night, and passengers were told to expect delays.

A view of a Steamship Authority ferry approaching the Nantucket Terminal on April 25, 2020. The company was hacked on Wednesday, they said

A view of a Steamship Authority ferry approaching the Nantucket Terminal on April 25, 2020. The company was hacked on Wednesday, they said

They were being encouraged to use cash to buy tickets, and are currently unable to book tickets or change vehicle reservations online or by phone.

The ticketing processes will likely continue to be affected on Thursday.

‘The Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Steamship Authority has been the target of a ransomware attack that is affecting operations as of Wednesday morning,’ the Steamship Authority said in a statement. ‘As a result, customers traveling with us today may experience delays.’

At 5:30pm on Wednesday they tweeted: ‘The Steamship Authority continues to work with our team internally, as well as with local, state, and federal officials externally, to address today’s ransomware incident.

‘At this point, we are unable to release or confirm specific details of what occurred.’

The company have not specified whether they paid a ransom.

Cars are seen loading on to the Steamship Authority ferry in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The ferry is a lifeline for those living on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, as it is the only way to get cars on and off the islands

Cars are seen loading on to the Steamship Authority ferry in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The ferry is a lifeline for those living on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, as it is the only way to get cars on and off the islands

The operators of the Colonial Pipeline confirmed they paid $4.4 million to Russian-based hackers Dark Side, to resume their vital operations. 

The hack in New York is just the latest attack on transit systems within the U.S.

A study last year by the Mineta Transportation Institute, cited by The New York Times, found that only 60 per cent of transit authorities had a cybersecurity plan in place.

They appeared naïve to the risks: over 80 per cent believed they were prepared to manage cybersecurity threats.

‘A lot of transit agencies don’t have chief security officers, much less cybersecurity officers,’ said Scott Belcher, a consultant specializing in transportation technology who led the study.

In 2016, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency was hacked, messing with the ticketing systems and forcing the agency to provide free service for three days.

In 2019, the transportation agency in Fort Worth, Texas, lost access to its IT systems, data and customer support.

And in October, a ransomware attack disrupted the Philadelphia transit authority’s operations for months after the agency was forced to block employees from accessing their email and stopped providing real-time travel information to riders.

Sacramento’s transit agency and the state transportation department in Colorado have also been hit by cyberattacks in recent years.

New York’s system – North America’s largest – appears particularly vulnerable, and has been breached three times by foreign agents in recent years, The New York Times reported.

New York's transit system is the largest in North America. But it is vulnerable to cyberattack, as happened in April and has happened twice before

New York’s transit system is the largest in North America. But it is vulnerable to cyberattack, as happened in April and has happened twice before

Hackers gained access specifically to systems used by New York City Transit, which oversees the subway and buses.

They also accessed the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad, compromising three of the transit authority’s 18 computer systems.

The hackers appeared to have gained entry via remote working systems used as staff logged on from home.

The MTA required 3,700 employees and contractors, representing five per cent of its workforce, to change passwords as a precautionary measure, according to the transit agency.

Several theories have been put forward as to why Beijing would want to hack into New York’s public transit.

One idea is that China wanted to learn more about New York’s systems, as they try to make advances in the industry that supplies parts and carriages for the service.

Another idea is that China accessed the system by mistake, while fishing around, and realized there was little of interest.

Some see the hack as China flexing their muscles and showing off their capabilities.

‘The M.T.A.’s existing multilayered security systems worked as designed, preventing spread of the attack,’ said Rafail Portnoy, the M.T.A.’s chief technology officer.

‘We continue to strengthen these comprehensive systems and remain vigilant as cyberattacks are a growing global threat.’



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