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Virginia's state legislature is a victim of ransomware attack


Ransomware attacks are like the pandemic. They're seemingly everywhere. Here at NPR News this week, people have been filling out time sheets on an alternate program because a ransomware attack on an outside company disrupted the digital time sheets we normally use at your favorite radio network. Other victims include the Virginia state Legislature, who've been forced to change the way they do business. Jahd Khalil of Radio IQ in Virginia has this report.

JAHD KHALIL: Last weekend, staffers at Virginia's General Assembly noticed suspicious activity on their IT systems. It turned out to be a ransomware attack. Officials won't describe the extent of the damage, but it does affect how legislators make laws.

DAVE MARSDEN: You know, we have a system in place where we can track the bills that we turn in and where they - you know, where they are in the process.

KHALIL: Senator Dave Marsden represents an area of Fairfax County in Northern Virginia.

MARSDEN: But you can't file a bill. I was going to make a joke at some point today that I'm going to buy quill pens and parchment for folks. We'll do a retro from - back to 1776.

KHALIL: Marsden and the rest of Virginia's lawmakers work part time. The legislative session only lasts 60 days and starts in January. That means the time to file bills is now, so the system outage and delays in drafting bills comes at a really bad time.

MARSDEN: It gets worse every day in terms of getting final drafts to people and, you know, working things through the system.

KHALIL: Milos Manic is the director of Virginia Commonwealth University's Cybersecurity Center. He says hackers could have accessed the system months ago and just waited.

MILOS MANIC: Unfortunately, the timing typically coincides with some other activities in order to make the most damage possible. Typically, when something like this happens, on the defense side, people will try to figure out what has happened, where it came from and how it can be remedied the best.

KHALIL: There's not a whole lot of public information about what's been affected. A spokesperson for the company hired to work on the problem wouldn't say if it was linked to organized crime or a foreign state. The head of the department that runs the bill tracking system said in an email that they're keeping the details quiet to preserve the integrity of the investigation. Legislative leaders are trying to keep it that way, too.


EILEEN FILLER-CORN: I believe it is beneficial that Joint Rules convene a - in a closed session.

KHALIL: That was Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn, a Democrat. She and other legislative leaders met behind closed doors Thursday to talk about the breach. On her way out, a staffer said the speaker wouldn't discuss the attack. It's unclear who would have the authority to pay ransom for the Legislature or where the money would come from. Here's Minority Leader Todd Gilbert.

TODD GILBERT: That's certainly a complicated question, and I think you're right to ask it. But I don't think that's obviously where anybody's headed in terms of trying to reward people for this kind of bad behavior.

KHALIL: Gilbert is slated to become speaker in January. The Republicans took the House of Delegates back this last election, and they'll be important for Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, who won in a massive upset this past fall.


GLENN YOUNGKIN: First, we've been fully briefed on the situation. And so when we get in on January 15, we will have a full review and make sure that we are doing everything we can to protect Virginians.

KHALIL: It appears bills are going to keep getting written. They might not be using quills and parchment like the old days, but Delegate David Reid described an alternative.

MARSDEN: It's a more cumbersome process, but it is workable.

KHALIL: That process - email and Microsoft Word.

For NPR News, I'm Jahd Khalil in Richmond.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOUSE ON THE KEYS' "PHASES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jahd Khalil