It was the start of a steamy Friday two Augusts ago when Jason Whisler settled in for a working breakfast at the Coffee Ranch restaurant in the Texas Panhandle city of Borger. The most pressing agenda item for city officials that morning: planning for a country music concert and anniversary event.
Then Whisler’s phone rang. Borger’s computer system had been hacked.
Workers were frozen out of files. Printers spewed out demands for money. Over the next several days, residents couldn’t pay water bills, the government couldn’t process payroll, police officers couldn’t retrieve certain records. Across Texas, similar scenes played out in nearly two dozen communities hit by cyberattack officials ultimately tied to a Russia-based criminal syndicate.
In 2019, ransomware had yet to emerge as one of the top national security concerns confronting the United States, an issue that would become the focus of a presidential summit between Washington and Moscow this year. But the attacks in Texas were a harbinger of the now-exploding threat and offer a vivid case study of what happens behind the scenes when small-town America comes under attack.
Texas communities struggled for days with disruptions to core government services as workers in small cities and towns endured a cascade of frustrations brought on by the sophisticated cyberattack, according to thousands of pages of documents reviewed by The Associated Press and interviews with people involved in the response. The AP also learned new details about the attack’s scope and victims, including an Air Force base where access to a law enforcement database was interrupted, and a city forced to operate its water-supply system manually.
In recent months, a ransomware attack led to gasoline shortages. Another, tied to the same hacking gang that attacked the Texas communities, threatened meat supplies. But the Texas attacks — which, unlike these prominent cases, were resolved without a ransom payment — make clear that ransomware need not hit vital infrastructure or major corporations to interrupt daily life.
“It was just a scary feeling,” Whisler, Borger’s emergency management coordinator, recounted in an interview.