Network for ransom – Nunavut heads into second week of IT shutdown


Kent Driscoll
The upcoming long weekend is going to be much longer for Nunavut’s IT workers as they struggle to reconnect and clear a damaged network.

On Nov. 2, a ransomware attack hit the government network, forcing them to shut the entire system down.

Ransomware locks information on the network, and a password to unlock the files is only available by paying the hackers a ransom.

As of Friday, most of that network remains unusable, and Nunavummiut are seeing the affects daily.

According to Dean Wells, Nunavut’s chief corporate information officer, paying the ransom was never an option.

“We don’t know, if we paid the ransom, would we get our passwords that we need to open. If so, what’s going to stop these folks from coming back and trying again,” said Wells.

Premier Joe Savikataaq echoed that this week at the legislative assembly, adding that his government was, “not even looking at what this is going to cost us.”

All anyone can say for sure is that blank check is going to be expensive, and Nunavut’s IT contractors stand to make more.

Ottawa firm Donna Cona is one of the companies Nunavut is leaning on to fix the network, a network they already have a large role in building and maintaining.

According to 2017, 2018 financial data, Nunavut spent over $4.6 million on contracts with Donna Cona Inc., and all but two of those were extensions of existing contracts from previous years.

Donna Cona established Nunavut’s initial network in 1996 to prepare for the start of the territory for $1 million, and have provided services ever since.

They specialize in connecting contractors with clients, known as a “body shop” in IT slang, but they bill themselves as “business management consultants”.

For its part, Donna Cona is actively recruiting IT help for the GN.

In a note on the business networking site LinkedIn, Donna Cona Senior Technical Recruiter Kevin Fortier wrote, “Calling all IT Security Consultants with a patriotic sense of duty! One of our key clients, the Government of Nunavut was the victim of a ransomware attack” before asking for, “Security Consultants to help with assessment, remediation and prevention moving forward.”

Nunavut has the power to issue emergency sole source contracts, and this attack would seem to qualify as an emergency.

Community and Government Services says there has been one sole source contract to FireEye (leading security expert on ransomware intrusion). Value of the contract can’t be released at this time because it’s an ongoing project.

Starting Thursday, the government began the process of physically reformatting every computer connected to their network, starting in Iqaluit.

There are around 2,000 of those computers in Iqaluit alone, 5,000 territory wide.

After the Iqaluit systems are reformatted, they’ll begin on Nunavut’s 24 other communities.

As for the information that is lost forever, if it was stored locally it is gone.

The system is set up to let users store items locally on their PC, and they are supposed to back that data up frequently on the network.

It is still unclear if the files saved to the network are salvageable, but the info stored locally is lost. In many cases, whether an individual department has their info could depend on how well they followed the back-up protocols.

Network backups are made monthly, but it is still unclear to the public is those files were also compromised.

Health and Finance have been cited as priorities for the government to fix first.

For Health, all Telehealth appointments have been postponed.

Telehealth is a remote program that allows someone in Nunavut to speak to a doctor in the rest of the country by video. According to the Health Department’s 2016-17 annual report, in the 2015-16 fiscal year, 1,100 Telehealth appointments were completed. At that point, 11 of Nunavut’s communities were still not connected to the system. Now, all 25 have access to Telehealth.

A government spokesperson was unable to immediately tell us how many Telehealth appointments have been missed due to the network shutdown, and did not provide us with an answer prior to publication.

The Meditech system allows x-rays taken in Nunavut to be viewed online by southern specialists. That system is also down until further notice.

Paper files have replaced digital at Nunavut’s Health Centres, and payments under the NIHB are going to be delayed.

Government vendors will not be paid on time until the Department of Finance is reconnected, but in a written statement the Finance Department states they “are working with departments to prioritize payments.”

As for the 5,010 government employees, their next pay day is Friday Nov 15.

Over 14,000 Nunavummiut receive social assistance, and those people are no longer receiving payments. Instead; the government has issued food vouchers. Students receiving financial assistance are scheduled to receive their next payment on Nov. 15, but whether that happens is still unclear.

Payments to foster parents are also due Nov. 15.

Many of the challenges the government routinely face are due to low staffing levels. They can’t process casual or relief worker applications, but will accept new applications by fax or in person.

While the government is trying to project confidence, a number of items are starting to reveal the attack will have repercussions for a long time to come.

While the Education Department was insisting earlier this week that most report cards will be issued on time, the Nanok Elementary school in Iqaluit has already pushed back report card by a week.

Despite some problems with the civil and legal registries, Nunavut’s courts are supposed to be running as planned.

In a written statement, the government said earlier this week that the Qulliq Energy Corporation was unaffected, but according to their statement on Facebook, Qulliq was disconnected from the network, internet and email until Nov 6th.

As for a potential fix, the government is being very careful to avoid providing a timeline.

Prior to APTN’s interview with Dean Wells, he was directed not to discuss timelines.

When we then asked him for a timeline, Wells said, ”Right now, some really, really rough timelines, we could start looking at some basic functionality back again by Friday (Nov 8), but that’s really optimistic.”

On the website Nunavut Tenders – where companies bid on government contracts- vendors were told it was going to take at least eight days, which is just a few days longer than Wells’ “optimistic” guess.

At the legislative assembly, Savikataaq told his colleagues to expect to see results, “within a week or two, we should be operational … but I don’t have a timeline when things will be normal or at the same state as before the virus struck our network.”

One government division got off completely unscathed, the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut operates its own IT independently of the government, and were not at all affected by the attack.

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