FILE - Computer server room

With federal and Florida officials fretting over anticipated attempts to hack into elections infrastructure during the November 2020 campaign, a new dark web threat is emerging – “ransomware” attacks targeting state/local government and utilities’ computer systems.

In fact, “ransomware” attacks are becoming so frequent, they have fostered an emerging use for Bitcoin as the apparent preferred currency of crypto-blackmailers.

The Riviera Beach City Council during a special meeting Monday became the latest to learn this when it agreed to pay 65 Bitcoins – worth about $600,000 – to a hacker who seized the Palm Beach County city's computer systems in late May, forcing local police and fire departments to hand-write on paper hundreds of daily 911 calls.

The hacker gained access to the city’s computer network, planted the software that encrypted the city’s data and made it inaccessible after “someone clicked on an email,” the city’s IT department said.

This hacker offered a 65 Bitcoin ransom payment to allow the city to recover its encrypted data, which came after it agreed to spend almost $1 million to upgrade compromised computer equipment.

Councilwoman KaShamba Miller-Anderson said she was advised by the city’s insurer to pay the ransom if it wanted the data back. The city will pay the $25,000 deductible, with the rest covered by insurance.

“It was a very difficult decision because I had to trust what others were telling me without knowing what’s really going on,” she said.

There is no guarantee the data will be unencrypted and a criminal investigation is under way, but according to a CNN canvass, targeted ransomware attacks on local cities, police stations and schools are on the rise and costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

A study by cybersecurity firm Recorded Future found at least 170 county, city or state government systems have been attacked since 2013, including at least 45 police and sheriff's offices.

Thus far in 2019, there have been more than 20 reported public-sector attacks, according to Recorded Future, which notes many aren't reported until months or years later.

In May, Baltimore was infected with ransomware, forcing the city to quarantine networks and manually provide municipal services. In March, Albany’s city computer network was struck with a ransomware attack.

The vulnerability of government computer systems to ransomeware adds a new level of angst over the sanctity of the state and local networks to hacks, especially in reference to elections security.

A month after he demanded a comprehensive review of Florida’s state’s election security practices, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced $5.1 million in spending to bolster the cybersecurity of voter registration files and county boards of elections.

About $2.3 million will come from what remains of a $19.2 million grant last year from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission while $2.8 million was earmarked in the state’s proposed $91.1 DeSantis is expected to sign soon.

The $2.8 million includes $1.4 million returned unspent from the $19.2 million federal grant by 58 of Florida’s 67 counties because they could meet specific conditions or deadlines.

DeSantis said Secretary of State Laurel Lee is overseeing a review of the cybersecurity policies of the election supervisors in Florida’s 67 counties to identify and mitigate potential vulnerabilities before voters go to polling places in 2020.

Once the reviews are complete, Lee’s cybersecurity technicians regularly monitor election supervisors’ networks, while information technology staff provides direct support where needed.

“Not every county has the same amount of resources so we wanted to be there to offer support so the elections run smoothly,” DeSantis said Monday at a Tallahassee news conference.

DeSantis ordered the review of elections security throughout the state eight days after he met with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security [DHS] in a classified briefing about Russian military intrusions into Florida’s electoral systems.

Florida officials have been alarmed – and angry – about what many maintain is a failure of the FBI and DHS to communicate with state and local elections officers about what federal investigations into the 2016 hacks have uncovered.

The FBI’s claim that Florida elections offices were hacked first surfaced last year and has been disputed by state and local elections officials, who say the agency has never presented evidence to support the allegation and has stonewalled requests for elaboration.

The assertion re-emerged in April when the 448-page Mueller investigation report stated on pages 50-51 that “at least one Florida county government” was comprised prior to the 2016 presidential election.

On May 10, DeSantis was briefed by the FBI and DHS. Four days later, he revealed the agency told him two, not one, counties had been breached by Russian hackers.

The revelation surprised state officials and enraged many when DeSantis said he could not further discuss the findings because the information is classified and he had signed a non-disclosure agreement.