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How county services have been interrupted, adapted after ransomware attack
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Katie Greenway, planner I at the Hall County Planning Department, works at her desk on Oct. 16, 2020. Hall County departments have had to adjust their processes as they recover from a ransomware attack that took place on Oct. 7. - photo by Thomas Hartwell

With some phone, email and software outages over the past week after a ransomware attack, Hall County government has been doing some things the old-fashioned way. 

However, many services, including phone and email, had returned as of Friday, Oct. 16. The county’s 911 operations were not affected. 

“The county will always do everything it can to provide services. We’re doing that in a more manual environment, and it being 2020, that means we’ve had to adapt and overcome our dependency on software,” Assistant County Administrator Zach Propes said Thursday. “But our staff, our (management and information systems) staff, our emergency management staff and all staff throughout the county have really stepped up, stepped forward and tried to expedite the recovery phase.” 

ransomware attack on county networks was discovered Oct. 7, shutting down phone and email operations. Propes declined to comment on the county’s investigation into the ransomware attack Thursday but said officials do not believe personal or confidential information was compromised. 

The county’s financial services department now has access to its software to track revenues and expenses, issue vendor checks and process payroll for employees, Propes said. The human resources department posts job openings through an external software that has been unaffected, he said. 

Public Works Director Srikanth Yamala said Friday his department was also relatively unaffected. The Hall County Landfill had seen an outage of the software it needed to calculate tonnage and process payments, but that service has been restored since the outage. Sewer services have also been unaffected — computers at the county’s wastewater treatment facility do not connect to county networks and are just used to monitor operations at the facility, he said. Customers pay sewer bills through the city of Gainesville. 

The ransomware attack and outage came days before heavy rains Oct. 10 and 11 that washed out and closed several county roads, but Yamala said traffic engineering staff were able to work with the Hall County Emergency Management Agency to respond to areas affected and do repairs. 

Emergency management uses a web-based software that was not included in the outages, Propes said. 

Planning Director Sarah McQuade said her department cannot access software needed to process building permits. Staff can take applications, do an internal review and communicate with property owners and developers about the applications. The applications then go into a queue for when the network access is restored and permits can be issued, McQuade said. 

If someone experiences an emergency and needs a building permit immediately, such as if a tree falls on a building and repairs are needed, staff will work with those affected, she said.  

“We’re definitely not going to prevent someone from rectifying an emergency situation,” McQuade said.  

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Hall residents stand in line at the Hall County Tax Commissioner's Office on Oct. 16, 2020. County departments have had to adjust as they recover from a ransomware attack on Oct. 7 that has limited services. - photo by Thomas Hartwell

Building inspectors are still going out in the field and tracking inspections manually, although they are experiencing the same software outage, McQuade said. 

McQuade said the county is still able to issue business licenses in most cases. The Hall County Marshal’s Office is also back to normal operations after initial phone and email outages, she said. 

And while the county can still accept new planning and zoning applications, staff have been unable notify neighboring property owners about applications in their neighborhoods, McQuade said. Notifications must be sent out five days before a public hearing, so items set for the Oct. 19 Hall County Planning Commission meeting will be tabled so notifications can be sent before hearings. McQuade said three previously tabled items will be heard Oct. 19 because notices were sent before the network interruption.  

Although the county is seeing some interruptions with its Geographical Information Systems (GIS) software, the public can still access property records through qPublic, an external site unaffected by the outage, McQuade said.  

The Hall County Sheriff’s Office’s Sheriff to Citizen portal, which shows local crime reports and the online jail database, was still experiencing some issues Friday. Most of the inmate information had become available by Friday, and incidents were being added to the event map. At the Hall County Courthouse, employees had limited file access but the courthouse was operational. 

Tax Commissioner Darla Eden said staff were able to accept tag renewal paperwork at the windows outside the Hall County Government Center, then mail people their new decals. People can also renew vehicle tags at the kiosks inside the Kroger stores on Jesse Jewell Parkway and Spout Springs Road, as well as through the state’s Georgia DRIVES e-Services page

 

Times reporter Nick Watson contributed to this report.

 

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Katie Greenway, planner I at the Hall County Planning Department, displays on Oct. 16, 2020 the manual process she must go through to fill out documents as the county continues to recover from a ransomware attack that took place on Oct. 7. - photo by Thomas Hartwell
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