The ransomware attack on the city of Atlanta, which marked its one-year anniversary last week, remains the most extensive breach on a local government to date.
A number of services in the major metropolitan center and home to the nation’s busiest airport were hamstrung, keeping some city systems, including city payment and court information portals, offline for nearly a week after the attack was discovered.
Last November, a federal grand jury in Newark, New Jersey, returned a six-count indictment charging two Iranian nationals with creation of the SamSam ransomware that targeted not only the Atlanta government but other municipalities, hospitals and companies around the United States.
Roy Hadley, former vice president for legal and chief privacy officer at international travel services company World Travel Partners and former general counsel and corporate secretary at wireless communications company AirGate PCS, was brought in to help with the immediate response and aftermath. Hadley, now special counsel at Adams and Reese, a technology and cybersecurity expert and outside counsel to the city of Atlanta, spoke with Corporate Counsel about how his time in-house informed his work on this matter and the role of the city’s legal department during the crisis.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Corporate Counsel: How did your experience as a GC and chief privacy officer prepare you for this event?
Roy Hadley: It helps if you have sat in that seat. If you understand what dynamics they’re having to deal with, that’s very helpful.
What are those dynamics?
Understanding that there’s no such thing as a blank check, that the money has to be allocated from somewhere, that you have to run through the traps and understand protocols and approval levels. Understanding those issues and being able to bring them into the equation without somebody having to teach it to you on the fly is helpful because you can then say, “OK, let’s do X, Y and Z.” And you already understand that inherent in X, Y and Z, you’re going to have to get this approval or that approval.All of those things that I learned in corporate America were eminently helpful in terms of what advice I could give to the city. When you’re in the trenches, and the bullets are flying around your head, being able to not have to ask the questions of, “Now, do we have to get approval for this? For that?” is invaluable.
How are these dynamics different when you’re dealing with the government vs. corporate America?
Anytime you talk about a data breach or an attack, it’s complex. But in this case, it’s even more complex because now what you’re talking about is water delivery, public safety, fire, police, 911. You’re talking about trash pickup, building permits, court systems, a lot of different things that have to happen every day in order for the city to run. You can’t say, “OK, they knocked us offline, and we can’t sell our widgets.”
People’s lives and public safety truly do depend upon the city being able to function. Corporate America has its challenges, and the stock price may get hit because of something, but in the government world, you potentially are talking about life and death.
And the thing that I am most proud of, and I think the city probably is most proud of, was that those essential services never stopped being delivered.
What was the role of the city of Atlanta’s in-house legal department during this event?
In the legal department, there is no such thing as a cyber-response lawyer. In theory, there is no need for one because you can bring outside assistance in if needed, similar to what the city did.
But when you start talking about response, you’re talking about contracts, procurements, courts and all of those issues. For example, as we were procuring vendors to come in and assist, the lawyers that deal with the contracts had to review those contracts very quickly. The lawyers that deal with procurement and the procurement process had to shepherd those contracts through the procurement process to get them signed and authorized because you have protocols that you must follow, even in an emergency. The lawyers that deal with the courts on a daily basis were helping us figure out what we needed to do to make sure that the courts were functioning appropriately.
The city had lawyers out there, working with the departments to make sure that any issues or potential issues were being addressed. It really was all hands on deck with respect to the law department because the law department is an interface with all of the various departments of the city.
Is there anything the city’s legal department could have done to prevent what happened?
In an instance like this, people tend to focus on what went wrong, but I like to focus on what went right, and in this instance the city had an incident response plan that was immediately put into place.
And the lawyers had already vetted that response plan, so immediately people knew what to do, who to call, what groups needed to get together. But not only did the lawyers help put that together on the front end, they were instrumental in making sure that it was followed and that everyone was doing what they were supposed to do during the crisis.