Cyberattacks down Md. city's online permitting system – SecurityInfoWatch


Over 10 days in September, three separate cyberattacks knocked the City of Annapolis's online permitting software, eTrakit, out of commission. Nearly two months later, it remains offline.

Over 10 days in September, three separate cyberattacks knocked the City of Annapolis’s online permitting software, eTrakit, out of commission. Nearly two months later, it remains offline.

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Oct. 28—Over 10 days in September, three separate cyberattacks knocked the City of Annapolis’s online permitting software, eTrakit, out of commission. Nearly two months later, the system containing all of the city’s permits, inspections, licenses and other documents about development projects remains offline.

After several unsuccessful fixes by Central Square, the company that owns the software and hosts the eTrakit server, the city is looking for a replacement. On Monday night, City Manager David Jarrell announced a plan to replace the 12-year old system by transferring $520,000 from salaries and benefits in the Police and Fire budgets to the Planning and Zoning Department to pay for a new system. The city will then use the same amount in federal aid from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to pay for the salaries and benefits.

The money includes the price of the new software and the cost of labor to implement it, which is expected to take at least six to eight months, Jarrell said. Tyler Technologies, a Texas-based software provider, has been identified to supply the new system. The company currently provides the city with its financial planning system and cybersecurity services.

Jarrell said he hopes the new system will be up and running sometime between April and June, ideally sooner.

The city’s IT staff are still working with Central Square to get the service back online in the interim. But city officials have complained the software vendor has been unresponsive and incapable of fixing the problem.

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Etrakit was purchased in 2008 and put online two years later. At the time, the program was lauded as a transparent system that allowed anyone — the public, media members, property owners and developers — to check on a construction or development project’s status.

The city had “really good support” until a year ago when Central Square acquired the software, and the tech support soon became “horrible,” Jarrell said.

As a stopgap, Planning and Zoning director Sally Nash has established a temporary site to look up the status of permits. The page can be found on annapolis.gov. It is updated daily.

While it doesn’t show licenses or other attachments commonly found on eTrakit, city staff is working to increase the page’s functionality, Nash said. She also sends documents to residents at their request, she said.

Call volume to the Planning and Zoning Department has increased dramatically in recent weeks, said Nash, who has called in administrative staff working remotely to respond to the additional calls. Nash also penned an op-ed in The Capital this week identifying the issues with the system and the city’s plans to move to a new one.

“We know we can’t rely on eTrakit, and that company hasn’t been responsive,” Nash said. “We know it’s time to look for a new service. It’s gotta happen. We just can’t go on like this.”

The trouble started on Sept. 9 when Google notified Annapolis city officials that it had discovered suspicious sites on the program’s server during a routine search, Jarrell said. The server was immediately shut down, and city officials contacted Tyler Detect, the cybersecurity arm of Tyler Technologies. The following day, the server was restored with the suspicious sites removed.

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On Sept. 11, Central Square installed a software update meant to fix the system’s vulnerabilities. Etrakit worked for a little under a week before the system was compromised for a second time on Sept. 18. Less than 24 hours later, the system was attacked for a third time, according to a timeline provided by Jarrell.

In the ensuing weeks, members of the city’s informational technology team have sought a fix from Central Square. Despite promises by the company to provide a firewall to protect the city’s system from future issues, no one at Central Square has said when that might happen. The city has spoken to Central Square as recently as Tuesday.

In response to questions about the cyberattacks and its plans to fix the system, a spokesperson for Central Square said, “For security and confidentiality reasons, we cannot disclose any information about our customers, their environments or their security.”

The breakdown of one of the city’s most essential online services comes at a critical time. The pandemic has forced most of the Planning and Zoning Department’s services online. Meanwhile, several major appeals are continuing to move forward, including one on a planned redevelopment at Eastport Shopping Center.

Etrakit is vital to keeping regular citizens informed about large and small projects in the city, said Eastport resident Frieda Wildey, who said she used to check various projects on the site several times a week.

“The staff is overworked, and they could use another 10 people in Planning and Zoning, but it’s so hard for a private citizen to understand what’s going on in our neighborhood,” Wildey said. “I know they’ve built a website, but it’s hard to find. A regular person would have no idea the train is barrelling down the tracks.”

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Jarrell said the city hadn’t discussed replacing the aging program before the pandemic. The program was working fine and the information technology department had no reports of suspicious activity.

But once nearly all of Planning and Zoning’s processes went online, it was clear eTrakit couldn’t handle the change, he said. For instance, since March, those who apply for a permit have to call the Planning and Zoning office, leave a message and wait for a staffer to call them back who collects their credit card information.

“It boggles my mind that we’ve been doing it all these months,” Jarrell said. “Now that it’s broken, we absolutely need to do something.”

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