Ransomware: An Ever-Evolving Cyber Threat

Ransomware is a profitable criminal enterprise that continues to expand while targeting the education sector.

Ransomware is a form of damaging software used by hackers to prevent or limit users from accessing the user’s own system, either by locking the system’s screen or by locking the files. It’s called ransomware because the attackers demand to be paid a “ransom” before allowing a victim to regain access to the data. The attackers often go unidentified due to the untraceable nature of Bitcoin, an online secure payment system typically utilized in ransomware attacks.

Victims commonly include governments, educational institutions, healthcare agencies, and everyday individuals. According to a Bitsight Insights report, the education sector had the highest rate of ransomware of six industries examined in 2016. In March of 2016, a South Carolina school district paid $8,000 in Bitcoins to hackers to unlock their network. (See article here.)  In December 2016, a Los Angeles County college was the victim of a ransomware attack that locked its access to email, voicemail, and the computer network. The college paid $28,000 in Bitcoins to hackers to regain access to its systems. (See article here.)

Ransomware is frequently delivered through spear phishing emails, resulting in the rapid encryption of sensitive files on a computer network. It can also take the form of pop-up ads, or hyperlinks. More recent iterations of ransomware include features such as countdown timers, ransom amounts that increase over time and infection routines that allow the malware to spread across networks and servers. A distribution method known as Popcorn Time ransomware encourages victims to share a link to download the ransomware in an attempt to infect others. If the subsequent victims pay the ransom, the attackers give the initial victim a free key to decrypt their data. (See article here.) Because most infections occur due to human error, it is imperative that educational institutions promote awareness and good internet security habits among all users.

A minefield of various state and federal laws can be implicated in a ransomware attack. Legal counsel should be contacted in the early stages of an attack to assist with navigating the reporting requirements of applicable laws such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, to name just two examples. The law is still developing with regard to school district and higher education data breaches and ransomware.

Potential outcomes of a ransomware attack include inability to access data; financial repercussions related to responding to the attack; possible payment of a ransom; and loss of credibility as an educational institution. Ransomware attacks also raise the specter of discipline for a student or employee who is the cause of a ransomware attack. Policies related to discipline, technology use, and records retention should be reviewed and modified if necessary to reflect this emerging cyber threat.

The FBI urges victims to report attacks to their local FBI office and recommends that organizations focus on prevention efforts (training employees and robust technical prevention controls) and the creation of a solid continuity plan in the event of a ransomware attack.  (See FBI document here.)

Given the potentially devastating impacts of a ransomware attack, the best defenses are knowledge, be vigilance, and preparation. A response plan should include coordination between multiple departments of a district (Information Technology, Risk Management, Human Resources/Student Records, campus security etc.). At a minimum, the process should include (i) implementing an awareness and training program for users to recognize and avoid ransomware and practice good internet security habits; (ii) creating protocols for a rapid, effective response to a ransomware attack, including notification of employees, students and the community; (iii) researching cyber insurance options before an attack occurs; and (iv) reviewing and updating internal policies regarding records retention, data backups, employee/student discipline, and applicable technology use agreements.

No institution is immune from attempted ransomware attacks, but these measures can help avoid a successful attack or, at least, limit the resulting damage.

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