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Unis admit ransomware attacks

More than half, 63 per cent of British universities who responded to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request made by SentinelOne, admit to being the target of a ransomware attack.

Over half, 56 per cent, suffered a ransomware attack in the past year. One university admitted that it had suffered a total of 21 separate attacks throughout the year. The FOI requests were carried out by SentinelOne, an IT security and end point protection product company, in July 2016 to establish how ransomware was a problem in academic institutions.

Of the 71 universities contacted, some 13 refused to answer because they said that their response could damage their commercial interests. While only Oxford and Kings College London admitted to not having any antivirus (AV) software, the majority of ‘protected’ universities suffered ransomware attacks despite investing in AV solutions. No universities confessed to paying a ransom. However, the value of ransoms demanded to decrypt the data ranged between £77 and £2299 (5 bitcoins). Only Brunel University had ever contacted the police in relation to a ransomware attack; most universities preferred instead to deal with the situation internally.

Earlier this year another FOI request suggested that 30 per cent of UK councils were the victims of ransomware. On an international scale universities have also been targeted, with the University of Calgary admitting to paying a $16,000 ransom. Another target for ransomware has been US hospitals – the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles was the most notorious victim, admitting to paying a $17,000 ransom.

What they say

Jeremiah Grossman, Chief of Security Strategy at SentinelOne, said: “The fact that all but one of those suffering a ransomware attack had an anti-malware solution installed, confirms the abject failure of traditional solutions to protect against the new, virulent strains of ransomware. In one particular case, Bournemouth University found themselves to be the most targeted institution, with a deeply concerning 21 attacks in the last year. The fact that 65 per cent of those universities suffering an attack were the victim of repeated attacks, where no ransom was [allegedly] paid, may prompt us to question the motives of the adversary as more than purely financial.”

And Gianluca Stinghini, Lecturer and Assistant Professor, Department of Computer Science, and Security Crime Science, University College London, said: “These findings shine a light on the growing ransomware threat and the fact that Universities are seen as potentially lucrative targets. The high proportion of attacks, and the fact that many have been hit multiple times, could be down to a number of factors. They hold sensitive data on staff and students which makes them attractive in the eyes of cyber criminals. From the evidence provided in this study, it appears that cyber criminals ask for more money in attacks against universities than they do when they target the general public. E-mail addresses for staff are often in the public domain which means that potentially the entire staff could be targeted at once, increasing the chance for successful infections. It could also be that they’re motivated by instances of other Institutions reportedly paying out the ransom demands. All these factors combined underline the need for vigilance in the face of this increasing threat, from opening email attachments, to updating systems and back-ups for data.”


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