Hackers hit New Orleans city government website — are other cities at risk?

No harm done this time, but it's an ominous occurrence.

Photo by Soumil Kumar from Pexels
  • Late last week, the city of New Orleans was hit by a ransomware attack.
  • Government offices were able to avoid the worst of it, as the result of following existing procedures.
  • Attacks like this on city governments are more common than you'd think.

On Friday, December 13, the City of New Orleans was hit by a massive phishing and ransomware attack, shutting down government websites and leading to a state of emergency. At the time of writing, the sites are still down for the count, though city services are still available.

A city government that actually prepared for something? 

The city was prepared for a cyber attack, having trained employees on what to do in such an emergency and having made a great deal of business easy to do offline. As soon as an attack was suspected, all city servers were powered down, computers were shut off, and all city employees disconnected from government Wi-Fi.

Another attack hit Rapides Parish the same day. No data was taken, and it is unknown if the attack was related. Investigations into the attacks are ongoing. The FBI and Secret Service have been called in to assist local investigators.

While New Orleans is the most prominent American city to be targeted, this isn't the first time that this kind of attack has hit a city. Cities in Texas, Georgia, and Florida have been hit alongside Johannesburg, South Africa, the largest city to be struck.

The threat of other attacks is taken seriously by many cities in the United States, and more than two hundred mayors around the country have agreed not to pay any demanded ransom as a means of discouraging potential attackers.

Why attack a city at all? 

Cities are often a little behind on technology, as anybody who has used a 10-year-out-of-date operating system while working for the government can attest to. Because of the importance of many of the systems cities operate, it can also be expected that some of them will pay the ransom to get their systems back online. When Johannesburg was hit, for example, government operations were severely affected.

This isn't always given though, when New Bedford, Massachusetts, was hit by ransomware, they stalled the attackers until they replaced all of their needed software and machines. They didn't pay a cent in ransom money. This doesn't always work out though, Atlanta once paid $2.5M to get out of a $50,000 ransomware holdup

.

Is this the shape of things to come?

While the idea of launching a cyber attack on a major city to try and extort them for money might have been science fiction within living memory, it is now a common occurrence. The FBI, who hadn't made a significant comment on cyber attacks since 2016, issued new guidelines this year on the changing nature of the attacks.

While cyber attacks are just as frequent as they've always been, general malware attacks such as WannaCry have given way to ransomware that is ever "more targeted, sophisticated, and costly."They also warn that "ransomware actors have also targeted healthcare organizations, industrial companies, and the transportation sector."

They are on to something, as is isn't even the only notable cyber attack this week. The Epilepsy Foundation was just hit with an attack designed to trigger seizures in those with photosensitive epilepsy. In Canada, a major provider of heath diagnostic testing was also just hit.

It isn't all doom and gloom, though, that FBI announcement also includes lots of better practices to protect yourself and your organization, such as setting anti-maleware solutions to update automatically and spreading awareness of such threats.

While New Orleans is going to come out of this hacking attempt little worse for the wear, the event shows us how an otherwise failed attack can disrupt even a well-prepared city. And remember, New Orleans has come out as well as it has so far because it was a particularly tricky city to hit. Imagine how it would look if a city with even more reliance on technology and no training were struck.

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Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
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  • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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