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Tucson's city website crashes for 36 hours, 'suspicious activity' probed

The city of Tucson's website went offline Tuesday afternoon and was not restored until Thursday morning, cutting access to online services such as water bill payments.

City officials found "suspicious activity" related to the crash, and are working with a contractor to investigate the issue, said Lane Mandle, chief of staff for the city manager.

Officials did not detail the reasons for the crash, although it appeared to be related to DNS issues, which could be the result of an attempted hack or outside attack on the system.

Residents visiting tucsonaz.gov for about 36 hours were left waiting as the city’s server kept failing to connect users to any parts of the system. The city website was still unreachable Wednesday evening, but had intermittently displayed system error messages. Thursday morning, it remained inaccessible for a time, but then became available.

"We're back online! Thank you for your patience," city officials tweeted just before 11 a.m.

In determining what took down the system, city officials may have to interrupt service on portions of the system, they said.

"As a part of this investigation, the city has and will continue to take measures that periodically disrupt access to certain systems, including the website and payment portals," a city news release said. "While inconvenient, these disruptions represent proactive measures by the city to ensure the safety of information and systems."

The crash didn't cause "any major disruptions to service outside of the bill pay system" for water, Mandle said. Tucson Water’s billing system was unable to accept electronic payments or access customer information because of the issue.

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All water shut-offs will be delayed until at least June 7 to account for the crash, Mandle told the Sentinel on Wednesday.

Once the online billing issue is resolved, Tucson Water will reach out to affected customers before moving ahead with any shut-offs.

Paying a water bill online is "by far" the most common use for Tucson's city website, officials said.

The crash is a "server issue based on the fact that we host our own website," city officials said. The city owns the computer hardware on which the online systems run. It's uncommon for governments to host their websites on their own servers, city officials said. Pima County, for example, uses a third-party hosting platform.

While Tucson's municipal web server, which uses Drupal, wasn't functioning, the city's email systems were still operational.

Tucson is in the middle of switching to a new third-party platform, and they're creating a new website. The city expects to use a server made by Granicus, a software company that the Pima County uses to publish Board of Supervisors agenda material.

The switch to a new website and hosting on Granicus has nothing to do with the crash, city officials said, but it should prevent similar crashes in the future.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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