Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Attacks/Breaches

4/13/2020
01:05 PM
Connect Directly
Twitter
LinkedIn
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

Pandemic Could Make Schools Bigger Targets of Ransomware Attacks

Most have had to implement distance learning, making them much more vulnerable, Armor says.

Schools and colleges could become big ransomware targets for attackers looking to exploit the sudden surge in distance learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Between Jan. 1 and April 8, at least 17 school districts and colleges — comprising 284 entities — were hit by ransomware attacks. That was more than double the total of eight school districts and colleges that were hit in similar attacks during the same period last year, security vendor Armor said in a report this week.

All but one of the attacks happened before individual states began implementing stay-at-home orders in the second half of March. So, at least this far, the attacks have not been pandemic-related. But that could change soon, says Chris Hinkley, head of the Counter Threat Unit (CTU) research team at Armor.

"There is a very strong possibility that the [ransomware] attacks against schools and colleges will increase," Hinkley says.

Attackers know that academic institutions cannot fall back to teaching students in person and therefore are more likely to be pressured into paying a ransom to regain access to their systems. Additionally, IT staff at school districts and colleges are likely going to be overloaded supporting distance-learning measures and are not monitoring their networks as closely as they might have otherwise.

"We do believe that the ransomware threat actors will continue their activity and certainly will not curb it, as this situation gives them an advantage," Hinkley says.

Already this year, educational institutions have been more heavily targeted than organizations in almost any other sector. According to Armor, there have been more attacks on schools and colleges this year than on municipal governments, which were the most heavily targeted entities in 2019. Between Jan. 1, 2019, and this month, a total of 94 school districts comprising some 1,150 schools have been impacted by ransomware attacks.

In several of these incidents, school districts were forced to pull their distance-learning platforms offline following a ransomare attack. As one example, Armor pointed to an incident at Indiana's Penn-Harris-Madison School Corp. in late 2019 that knocked out all internal network systems districtwide. The systems that were impacted in the attack included Canvas, an online platform that students use to access and submit work, and Skyward, a platform for tracking attendance and sharing information with families.

In similar attacks at the Las Cruces Public Schools system in New Mexico and Havre Public Schools in Montana last year, the districts were forced to take their entire networks offline for days following separate ransomware attacks.

In some incidents, school districts have been forced to do the same as a precautionary measure after a ransomware attack. The Nacogdoches Independent School District in Texas, for instance, last year opted to pull the plug on its entire computer network for days to minimize damage after attackers locked down files on some of its PCs.

Slow Recovery
As with organizations in other sectors, the time frame for a school district or college to recover from a ransomware attack has tended to vary depending on the school's data and system backups, as well as the extent of the damage that was done to its network, servers, and devices. "However, overall, we have not seen schools recover quickly" compared to organizations in other industries, Hinkley says.

Of the 17 school districts and colleges that were hit in ransomware attacks this year, only two publicly stated they were not going to pay, Hinkley says. It's unclear whether any of the others paid a ransom to get back access to their systems.

"We do believe the costs for recovery and to resume in a stable, functional state will depend on the reliability and extensiveness of the school's backup system, the breadth of the damage created, and the security protections needed to prevent a similar attack from happening a second time," Hinkley says.

A report by Absolute last year, based on anonymized data from over 3.2 million endpoint devices in schools, found that technology complexity has heightened the risk of data breaches and ransomware attacks at many schools. The security vendor found that over the past few years, many schools have gone from managing a few hundred devices, a handful of apps, and a couple of operating systems to managing hundreds of versions of operating systems, apps, and extensions, and thousands of systems.

"The diversity of device types, operating systems, and applications adds unprecedented complexity to today's digital districts and campuses," Absolute said.

Related Content:

A listing of free products and services compiled for Dark Reading by Omdia analysts to help meet the challenges of COVID-19. 

Check out The Edge, Dark Reading's new section for features, threat data, and in-depth perspectives. Today's featured story: "When All Behavior is Abnormal, How Do We Detect Anomalies?"

Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio
 

Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Threaded  |  Newest First  |  Oldest First
tdsan
50%
50%
tdsan,
User Rank: Ninja
4/16/2020 | 2:01:13 PM
Interesting post
I think with the schools, it is the administrative staff that does not put emphasis (money) into the schools IT, education and training. They are more concerned with the bottom-line as opposed to external threats.

For example, a number of applications that I identified still had the admin user name and password, no one took the time to change it and there are a number of applications and devices that are still set to default settings, they just take it out fo the box, configure it for the network and attach it for kids to use.

Ransomware Hit Over 1,000 U.S. Schools in 2019

In addition, the kids who are in the schools have been causing some of the attacks because they have found holes or vulnerabilities where they continue to exploit and use for their own purposes.

What needs to happen is that for every device that enters into the school, there needs to be a preconfigured template they use (planning will play a big part) and then deploy the solution without intervention from the admin IT staff (that is usually one person who has been appointed to do the job), provide adequate training to people who have done this before and look into other applications other than Windows (someone said that if the schools would create a team of well trained students to help with the Ransomeware issue, they could help the admin staff - a type of project - address the IT needs, empowering the school and the kids as well).

Todd
tdsan
50%
50%
tdsan,
User Rank: Ninja
6/12/2020 | 9:50:06 AM
Re: Interesting post

Our students often made attacks on servers with grades and personal data...This factor should be legitimate and free. This is the right way to identify malicious attacks - lafnian1990,

I was not sure if you saw that, but I reiterated that we need to strike a balance between the kids and the admin staff to work together to address some of the issues found on the network, not just malicious attacks, but attacks that were found open from untrained staffe members who place IOT devices on the network and don't provide a "secured template" (this is from an admin perspective).

The kids on the other hand (who have been identified as being talented) need to be put in a sandbox (once they have been identified) so they can hack away, I do think learning comes from various sources but I don't think the kids need to be the only source of knowledge when it comes to malicious attacks, there needs to be an oversight group (remote monitoring), proper training, develop a sandbox for testing, educate the students about white-hat processes (provide them with proper guidance), follow system hardening practices (DISA Stigs) and work collaboratively together to identify potential holes.

Now this is the way as a group we need to mitigate attacks from various educational sectors, not just one source but a collective source of thought and guidance.

The Hacker School Experience | WIRED

T
COVID-19: Latest Security News & Commentary
Dark Reading Staff 9/25/2020
Hacking Yourself: Marie Moe and Pacemaker Security
Gary McGraw Ph.D., Co-founder Berryville Institute of Machine Learning,  9/21/2020
Startup Aims to Map and Track All the IT and Security Things
Kelly Jackson Higgins, Executive Editor at Dark Reading,  9/22/2020
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon
Current Issue
Special Report: Computing's New Normal
This special report examines how IT security organizations have adapted to the "new normal" of computing and what the long-term effects will be. Read it and get a unique set of perspectives on issues ranging from new threats & vulnerabilities as a result of remote working to how enterprise security strategy will be affected long term.
Flash Poll
How IT Security Organizations are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem
How IT Security Organizations are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem
The COVID-19 pandemic turned the world -- and enterprise computing -- on end. Here's a look at how cybersecurity teams are retrenching their defense strategies, rebuilding their teams, and selecting new technologies to stop the oncoming rise of online attacks.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2020-25137
PUBLISHED: 2020-09-25
An issue was discovered in Observium Professional, Enterprise & Community 20.8.10631. It is vulnerable to Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) due to the fact that it is possible to inject and store malicious JavaScript code within it. This can occur via the alert_name or alert_message parameter to the /a...
CVE-2020-25138
PUBLISHED: 2020-09-25
An issue was discovered in Observium Professional, Enterprise & Community 20.8.10631. It is vulnerable to Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) due to the fact that it is possible to inject and store malicious JavaScript code within it. This can occur via /alert_check/action=delete_alert_checker/alert_test...
CVE-2020-25139
PUBLISHED: 2020-09-25
An issue was discovered in Observium Professional, Enterprise & Community 20.8.10631. It is vulnerable to Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) due to the fact that it is possible to inject and store malicious JavaScript code within it. This can occur via la_id to the /syslog_rules URI for delete_syslog_ru...
CVE-2020-25140
PUBLISHED: 2020-09-25
An issue was discovered in Observium Professional, Enterprise & Community 20.8.10631. It is vulnerable to Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) due to the fact that it is possible to inject and store malicious JavaScript code within it. This can occur in pages/contacts.inc.php.
CVE-2020-4531
PUBLISHED: 2020-09-25
IBM Business Automation Workflow 18.0, 19.0, and 20.0 and IBM Business Process Manager 8.0, 8.5, and 8.6 could allow a remote attacker to obtain sensitive information when a detailed technical error message is returned in the browser. This information could be used in further attacks against the sy...