Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

On Sept. 10, municipal employees in a region between Montreal and Quebec City arrived at work to discover a threatening message on their computers notifying them they were locked out of all their files.

In order to regain access to its data, the regional municipality of Mekinac was told to deposit eight units of the digital currency Bitcoin into a bank account – roughly equivalent to $65,000.

Mekinac’s IT department eventually negotiated the cyber extortionists down and paid $30,000 in Bitcoin, but not before the region’s servers were disabled for about two weeks.

Story continues below advertisement

The attack highlights a glaring weakness in government servers in Quebec, according to Professor Jose Fernandez, a professor and malware expert at the Polytechnique Montreal engineering school.

“Quebec is an embarrassment,” Mr. Fernandez said in an interview, adding that he has tried without success to contact government representatives to alert them to the problem.

“There hasn’t been any traction on this issue in the past 15 years,” he said. “I try to speak to [the government] but there is nobody. Who are you going to call? Nobody.”

Bernard Thompson, reeve for the Mekinac regional municipality, said the ransom demand presented a real dilemma for his small organization. Mekinac groups together 10 municipalities with a population of roughly 13,000 people.

“It was hard, clearly, on the moral side of things that we had to pay a bunch of bandits,” Mr. Thompson said.

Mekinac’s attackers used malicious software – known as malware or ransomware – to demand money in return for keys to unlock the data.

Mr. Fernandez said it is ironic that Quebec is home to a thriving cybersecurity industry and is an emerging hub for artificial-intelligence research, yet the provincial government is “decades” behind other provinces in defending against cyberattacks.

Story continues below advertisement

Still, Quebec is not the only province experiencing attacks. Several municipal governments and businesses in Ontario were recently hit by ransomware attacks, prompting the Ontario Provincial Police to issue an advisory in September.

In response to the growing problem, Communications Security Establishment – the Defence Department’s electronic intelligence agency – launched the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security last month. It is responsible for monitoring “new forms of ransomware” and advising the federal and provincial governments.

Spokesman Evan Koronewski said the centre has no provincial or territorial equivalent.

Mr. Fernandez, however, notes that some provinces are taking significant steps. British Columbia and New Brunswick have established offices dedicated to protecting government data. Meanwhile in Quebec, he said, small towns are left unprotected.

“I’m hoping the new government does something about it,” he said.

Patrick Harvey, spokesman for the Public Security Department, disputed the claim the provincial government is unprepared for cyberattacks.

Story continues below advertisement

He said the Treasury Department has a director of information responsible for ensuring government data is protected. The Public Security Department has a unit dedicated to responding to cyberattacks within the administration and provincial police.

But municipalities are not part of the unit’s mandate. “Municipalities are autonomous entities that are responsible for ensuring the security of their digital infrastructure,” Mr. Harvey said.

Mekinac’s servers were compromised after an employee opened and clicked on a link in a fraudulent email sent by the hackers.

Once opened, the malware was downloaded onto the computer, giving the hackers access to the entire network. The hackers then encrypted all the data and held it hostage until they received their bitcoins.

Once a system’s data is encrypted, it’s virtually impossible to crack the code without a key – and there is nothing police can do about it.

Most professional criminals use commercial grade encryption and to locate a key to decrypt data would take “astronomical effort in terms of computing,” Mr. Fernandez said.

Story continues below advertisement

“You either pay or you don’t get the data.”

The identity and location of Mekinac’s hackers were never discovered.

Mr. Thompson said police seized some of his computers for analysis and told his office not to negotiate or pay the criminals.

But Mr. Thompson said his region couldn’t heed that advice, because it would have meant months of data re-entry, costing significantly more than $30,000.

So they paid, got their data back and learned a valuable lesson.

“In the end, in terms of the security of our system, [the attack] was actually positive,” Mr. Thompson said.

Story continues below advertisement

A local cybersecurity company – for $10,000 a year – helped the regional municipality build firewalls and encrypt its own data.

“We are practically no longer vulnerable,” Mr. Thompson said. “Everything is encrypted now. Every email is analyzed before we even receive it.”

He warns that small towns across the province are just as susceptible to attack as his region was.

“Every day, our system catches malicious emails trying to penetrate – but they are stopped,” he said. “But the attacks keep coming.”

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies