Cyber-Attack Knocks Out San Francisco Transit System Fare Terminals

Riders on San Francisco's municipal transit system were able to board light rail trains for free after the fare payment terminals were hit by a ransomware attack.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MUNI) was the victim of a ransomware attack on Nov. 25 and Nov. 26 with system terminals and fare payment machines throughout the MUNI fare payment network displaying the message "You Hacked, ALL Data Encrypted."

In response to the attack, MUNI gates were left open and users were able to ride the transit system for free. There was no direct impact to the actual physical operations of the MUNI, with transit vehicles operating normally, despite the fare terminal attack.

MUNI operates public transit systems within San Francisco city limits including light rail, street level buses and the city's famous cable cars. The MUNI transit system is separate from the Bay Area Rapid Transit subway system, which was unaffected by the weekend cyber-attack.

According to a tweet from the official MUNI Twitter account (@sfmta_muni) fare gates and ticket vending machines in Metro stations returned to normal operations on Nov. 27.

It's not clear at this point, how much of the MUNI's overall system was impacted and if in fact transit officials paid a ransom, or were able to recover without paying. The full system error message that displayed on MUNI terminals also included a contact email address.

The San Francisco Examiner responded to the address and got a response from the purported attacker who demanded 100 Bitcoins, worth approximately $73,000, to restore the systems. The attacker claimed on Nov. 27 that the ransomware was still in control of 2,112 systems on the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency network of 8,656 systems.

Ransomware has been a growing problem in 2016, Kaspersky Lab reported that 821,865 Kaspersky users were attacked by some form of ransomware in the third quarter. Additionally a report from SentinelOne published on Nov. 18 found that over the past 12 months, 50 percent of organizations have responded to a ransomware campaign.

Though Ransomware attacks are common, few victims actually end up paying the ransom. A report from Check Point in August looking specifically at Cerber found that only 0.3 percent of victims paid the demanded ransom.

With the MUNI incident, no doubt the system will lose money from the riders that did not pay fares. On a more positive note, there apparently was no impact on MUNI's light rail operations or safety system, which was operating normally on Nov. 28.

Whether Muni officials did in fact pay a ransom, or simply followed best practices and had a backup of their system, is unknown at this time. A system-wide reboot from a backup would take time and also would not necessarily remove the risk of re-infection from ransomware either.

Ransomware can enter a system from a variety of different methods, though it typically infects systems by way of phishing email and malicious links that users click on. Most ransomware malware will search out information on an infected device, as well as looking for shared network drives, to encrypt. No doubt, the Muni will conduct a full-audit and likely also pull in a breach incident response vendor to accurately determine root cause and put in additional security measures.

The attack should also serve as yet another wake up call for organizations in all industries about the risk of ransomware. It's imperative for all organizations to have advanced threat detection capabilities as well as ongoing monitoring that can limit the risk of potential infection. It's also critical for organization to have a backup plan, that is what happens when (not if) an infection were to occur and how the organization should respond.

It's also important to note that while the ransomware attack did interrupt parts of the MUNI, San Francisco's light rail system is no stranger to service interruptions triggered by technologies both new and old. On Nov. 27, as the MUNI was attempting to restore its fare payment terminals, the MUNI twitter account reported that cable car service was down on Powell Street due to a cable issue. Cable car service was restored an hour later.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.