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As Baltimore struggled to recover from ransomware attack, Google saw an opportunity, documents reveals

As Baltimore struggled to recover from a ransomware attack that brought its computer systems to a halt in May, a Google salesman and a lobbyist for the technology firm took the opportunity to renew a longstanding effort to lure the city away from its rival Microsoft.

Tom Ray, a Google salesman who works with state and local governments, sent an email on May 31 following up on a phone call with a top aide to Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young. He invited the aide to compare Google’s offerings with Microsoft’s and included a previous pitch he made to city officials suggesting using Google’s email and office software offered big cost savings.

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“The partners of the past are not necessarily the right partners for the future,” Ray wrote in an email obtained through a request under the Maryland Public Information Act.

The ransomware struck May 7, shutting down city employees’ emails, halting credit card payments for city services and fines, and freezing the property market. Many of the problems have been fixed now but water bills are still not expected to be issued until early August.

The cost of the ransomware attack has been estimated at more than $18 million. On Thursday, the city disclosed that it hired Microsoft and five other firms to help with the response to the attack at a cost of $2.8 million. The city has spent another $1.9 million on new hardware and software and a further $600,000 on personnel.

City officials switched in an impromptu way to Google after the attack, creating Gmail accounts so they could continue to communicate by email. But on May 23, Google temporarily froze some of those accounts, saying they had tripped its security systems. That evening, Ray and Young’s aide, Sheryl Goldstein, were in contact ensuring the service was restored.

“If anyone hasn’t had their gmail restored you can send a list to this guy and they will fix it,” Goldstein wrote to another official in the mayor’s office.

The emails the city released to The Baltimore Sun were from a temporary Gmail account used by Goldstein. The Sun made the request in part to determine whether the messages in those accounts were available to the public under the records disclosure laws.

A Google spokesman referred questions about whether Baltimore was considering working with the company to the mayor’s office.

In an interview, Goldstein said Google was one of many companies that had been in contact after the ransomware attack.

“What I told them at the time was that if we were going to consider moving to a different email platform or other cloud based applications we would likely put that out for competitive bid," she said.

Frank Johnson, the head of the city’s IT department, told members of a city commission in January that he didn’t think switching from Microsoft was worth it.

“The opportunity cost of change, of us flipping from Office to Google Docs, even if they give it to us for free will cost us an inordinate amount of money in lost productivity, efficiency," he said. “Plus there will be a several million dollar change-over fee. It just doesn’t make sense in my humble opinion.”

The messages in the wake of the ransomware attack show Ray nonetheless continuing to make the case for his company.

“My intention is not to throw anyone under the bus or make a claim that there is bias against Google,” Ray wrote in the May 31 message. “State and local IT teams are significantly under resourced which makes it challenging to ‘hear through the noise.’”

Within a few days of the problems with the temporary Gmail accounts, Ray and Goldstein had met. Then Ray sent the message following up on the phone call. He attached correspondence from November with officials in the administration of then-Mayor Catherine Pugh, who had asked the city’s IT department to consider Google’s pitch.

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Ray said working with Google could bolster the city’s cyber defenses, making them as resilient as those guarding the company’s search engine. He suggested that Goldstein research Google’s Chrome operating system and Windows, “and you’ll see why more and more security experts prefer Chrome.”

“A key point in all this is that these technologies not only improve security but save money,” Ray wrote. “It’s been proven time and again.”

The November message recapped a proposal Google had made to Pugh. It said switching regular emails to the company’s email and collaboration tools could save the city as much as $16.2 million a year. (The city IT department’s operating budget for this year is about $40 million.)

Ray wrote that Google also could help process images from city-owned security cameras and work with other departments.

In late June, John “JR” Reith, an Annapolis lobbyist working with Google, wrote to Goldstein asking to get coffee.

“Google remains very interested in helping the City and will remain patient for the right opportunity,” Reith wrote.

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