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Why a cyber attack on a Florida prison contractor will delay toll road bills

The Florida Department of Transportation outsources a key part of toll-by-plate to a contractor who uses prison labor.
Ladarine Williams, an inmate at Avon Park Correctional Institution. The tire facility teaches inmates a vocational skill and helps instill work ethic and responsibility in the inmates. (Times file photo)
Ladarine Williams, an inmate at Avon Park Correctional Institution. The tire facility teaches inmates a vocational skill and helps instill work ethic and responsibility in the inmates. (Times file photo) [ Highlands Today ]
Published Dec. 11, 2019
Updated Dec. 12, 2019

A cyber attack on a Florida contractor that runs inmate work programs is leading to more problems with the state toll road system.

PRIDE Enterprises has been locked out of its computer systems for days in what the organization called a potential criminal attack. The Brandon outfit runs on state prison labor and provides services and products to Florida governments.

Here’s how the cyber attack affects Florida toll roads: PRIDE has a contract with the state to review images of license plates on vehicles that go through a toll without paying. If a sensor can’t automatically read the license plate, a Florida inmate reviews a picture of the plate and then manually types the letters and numbers into a computer.

That computer system is down, which will likely lead to delays in invoices for thousands of drivers who use Florida toll roads, said Department of Transportation spokeswoman Beth Frady.

Florida’s Toll-by-Plate program allows motorists to receive an invoice in the mail for tolls instead of stopping to pay while driving. PRIDE processed 120 million license plate images last year for the state, or about 300,000 a day.

“They’re one of the first dominoes that need to fall before we can do anything,” Frady said.

No personally identifiable information is provided to PRIDE, only license plate images, Frady said. The Department of Transportation cut off any network connections to PRIDE as soon as it learned of the cyber attack.

It’s the latest headache for Department of Transportation officials related to Florida’s toll roads.

Last year, the department turned its toll processing over to Conduent, a New Jersey company, which badly botched the job. Conduent’s software was completely overwhelmed, and thousands of customers were overbilled or had their bank accounts overdrawn.

The problems extended to SunPass terminals at Florida airports, the Tampa Bay Times reported earlier this year. The disruptions led transportation officials to decide against automatically renewing Conduent’s contract.

A recent report by the state’s chief inspector general found Conduent wasn’t up to the task and said state officials failed to heed warning signs. The state says it expects to lose $50 million in toll revenue this year.

Troubles at PRIDE first began Saturday, when workers noticed they could not access payroll records, email, customer and vendor lists and other day-to-day back end systems. The problems have persisted. Employees can’t make financial transactions and the PRIDE’s website is down.

There’s no indication any data was stolen, said Dee Kiminki, the chief administration officer at PRIDE, but “certain data files within the PRIDE network have been encrypted and rendered unusable.”

PRIDE is cooperating with the FBI in an “ongoing criminal investigation,” Kiminki said. A spokeswoman for the FBI said she could not confirm or deny the agency’s involvement but said the FBI does have jurisdiction to investigate cyber intrusion or ransomware.

The Department of Corrections is aware of the situation. Some inmates are unable to participate in PRIDE work programs while the company’s systems are down, said Michelle Glady, spokeswoman for state prisons.

“I don’t believe any of our information has been compromised,” Glady said.

PRIDE has a unique arrangement with Florida state government. The Department of Corrections provides prisoners to work in PRIDE offices and factories, where they produce goods and services for PRIDE to sell. PRIDE reported $69.5 million in sales in 2018. Its board members are chosen by Florida’s governor and confirmed by the state Senate.

The state of Florida is PRIDE’s biggest client. Several government agencies outsource tasks to PRIDE’s prison work programs. For example, prisoners make license plates for PRIDE that it sells to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

PRIDE also makes “optical lenses and dentures to traffic paint, picnic tables, office furniture, printed materials, cleaning supplies, and more,” according to its 2018 annual report. Inmates logged more than 3 million hours working for PRIDE last year, earning $1.1 million in wages. That comes out to about 37 cents an hour.

Meanwhile, the company netted $1.2 million in profits.

Leaders at PRIDE suggest its programs prepare inmates to return to the workforce after they get released, reducing the likelihood they return to prison. But inmate work programs have come under scrutiny in recent years amid reports that some states use prisoners to fight fires and for other dangerous work for low or no pay. In other places, prisoners are assigned menial tasks with debatable applications in the real world.

Kiminki said, “We have no reason to believe that we were targeted for a PRIDE-specific reason."

There is no timetable for resolving PRIDE’s issues. The Department of Transportation has asked another vendor to help review license plate images in the meantime.

“It is not Conduent,” Frady assured.