One month after a cyberattack brought down government servers and Web sites in Vanuatu, frustrated officials are still using private Gmail accounts, personal laptops, pen and paper, and typewriters to run the government of Vanuatuan Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau, who came into office just a few days after the crash.
The malware attack on state networks has caused delays in communication and coordination in the Pacific Island nation of 314,000 people and 80 islands.
People have resorted to the online Yellow Pages or the hard copy phone directory to locate government phone numbers. Some offices are running from their Facebook pages and Twitter.
The problems began about a month ago, when suspicious phishing activity was first noticed in e-mails to the Vanuatu Ministry of Finance and Economic Management, said a financial analyst who works closely with the ministry’s cybersecurity teams.
The malware crashed nearly all government e-mail and Web site archives.
Many departments are still using local computer drives to store data, as opposed to Web servers or the cloud.
No official information has been released on whether ransom demands were made by the hackers.
“It is taking longer for payments [from the finance ministry] to get out, but ... we are always on Vanuatu time anyway,” said the financial analyst, who asked to remain anonymous.
Government departments have struggled to stay connected, frustrating officials, with impromptu solutions being implemented for communication between agencies and departments. Many government offices on outer islands are experiencing sharp delays in services.
“It was chaos during the first few days, but the entire government made alternative Gmail accounts or used their private e-mails. We are all using telephones and mobile phones for communication, but we are resilient in Vanuatu as a small country and can manage this,” said Olivia Finau, a communications officer at the Ministry of Climate Change Adaptation, Meteorology, Geo-Hazards, Environment, Energy and Disaster Management.
“Our department is communicating with the public more now with Facebook and Twitter, and we are actually getting more followers,” Finau said.
The attack did not crash civilian infrastructure, such as airline or hotel Web sites. Most tourism and business has continued as usual into the busy holiday period.
The current system can be remedied by upgrading software and putting files onto the cloud for managing, said the analyst, but local officials do not have the expertise to do this and “need outside assistance.”
The government previously reported that the attack occurred on Nov. 5, but a computer technician at the Vanuatu Office of the Government Chief Information Officer and an Australian diplomat confirmed that the crash actually came on Oct. 30.
In the first few days of the crisis, some Vanuatu authorities attributed the issue to poor weather damaging Internet infrastructure.
However, the Australian diplomat said: “We noticed there was a problem right away ... our team recognized this as having the hallmarks of a cyberattack, and not being caused by weather.”
Gaps in internal communications in the days that followed the attack compounded matters. Kalsakau formally came into power on Nov. 4, and on Nov. 5 the government officially recognized the problem.
The Australian government has made offers of assistance.
“We sent in a team to assist with that disgraceful cyberattack and the response and we are working through the process of bringing the government IT systems back up to speed,” Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific Pat Conroy told the Vanuatu Daily.
Cyberattacks have wreaked havoc globally in the past few years and Vanuatu’s attack serves as a warning to small nations across the Pacific who have even weaker cybersecurity than Port Vila.
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