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Cyber Security

Ransomware Attacks Disrupt School Reopenings




A flurry of recent attacks is complicating attempts to deliver classes online at some schools in different parts of the country.

School reopenings — already bogged down by concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic — are being further complicated by targeted ransomware and denial-of-service attacks.

This week, Hartford Public Schools (HPS) in Connecticut became the latest to announce a ransomware attack that in its case forced school reopening to be delayed by one day. School officials said multiple critical systems had been knocked offline by the attack, including one used to communicate transportation routes to the district’s bus company. That prevented the district’s ability to operate schools on Tuesday as scheduled, HPS said.

Multiple other school districts have reported similar incidents in recent days. On Tuesday, the Clark County School District in Las Vegas said some of its systems had been infected with ransomware on Aug. 27. The incident impacted systems containing current and former employee data, according to the school district.

Last month, Hayward County Schools in North Carolina was forced to discontinue online classes for students for several days — including opening day — following a ransomware attack. More than a week after the intrusion, many services remained unavailable, and school officials warned that restoration work could take several weeks. They later announced the attack had also resulted in sensitive data potentially belonging to employees and students being compromised in the incident. Similarly, school reopening at Oklahoma’s Ponca City School system was delayed by a week last month after a ransomware attack crippled the district’s ability to deliver online classes.

The flurry of ransomware attacks — like almost every other cyber threat over the past several months — is being driven by the hasty switch to remote learning triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. School systems, which even before the pandemic had to contend with tight IT budgets, have just not had the time or resources to implement defenses for countering new cyber threats tied to the pandemic, security experts say.

“[The pandemic] has forced the use of many technologies the schools have never used before. Most of the services and systems making remote learning are completely brand new to them,” says Curtis Preston, chief technical evangelist at Druva. “So the already existent problems presented by underfunding and the ability to only deliver basic IT services have increased by an order of magnitude in light of the pandemic.”

Scott Gordon, chief marketing officer at Pulse Secure, likens the heightened threat that schools face to the increased threat that most organizations in general have experienced in the past several months. He points to a recent study conducted by Pulse that showed 80% of organizations have experienced greater malware issues with the recent expansion of remote computing.

“The move to a digital classroom mimics the increase in threats that other industries are coping [with] as they enable a hybrid and flexible workplace,” Gordon says.

According to Gordon, while many schools have defenses aligned to monitor, protect, and prepare for recovery of their critical assets, others don’t because of budget and resource considerations. As a result, “remote access exposures have grown due to vulnerable endpoints, phishing, and at-risk connectivity,” he notes.

The surge in attacks on schools is not entirely unexpected. A study that Armor conducted back in April showed at least 284 entities across 17 school districts and colleges were hit in ransomware attacks between Jan. 1 and April 8 alone. At the time, the security vendor had predicted an increase in such attacks in the following months. A previous Armor study found over 1,000 schools were hit in ransomware attacks last year.

Druva’s Preston says the attacks heighten the need for better data backup practices at schools.

“The one thing they all must do is to back up anything they are doing to a system that separates backups from any attacks,” he says.

The DDoS Threat
Ransomware is not the only concern that schools face as they prepare for an academic year where most courses will be delivered online. Distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks are another major concern. According to security vendor Kaspersky, DDoS attacks targeting schools and other educational institutions surged between 350% and 500% each month between February and June 2020 compared with the same period last year.

“For the last half a year, we have seen the number of attacks on educational and government resources grow faster than on other kind of resources,” says Alexander Gutnikov, a DDoS expert at Kaspersky.

So far, at least most of the attacks on these organizations have been politically motivated or plain acts of hooliganism, he says. But that could soon change as well.

Late last month, the FBI warned about criminals claiming to belong to the Russia-based Fancy Bear cyber espionage group conducting ransom DoS attacks on financial institutions and organizations in other sectors. In many of the attacks — which started last month — the threat actors have asked targeted organizations to pay a demanded ransom amount within one week or face the prospect of a major DoS attack. Most of those targeted in these attacks did not report any additional activity after the deadline passed, or they successfully mitigated the threat, the FBI said.

There is some concern that similar attacks could be directed at school systems, which are far less prepared to deal with DoS attacks than financial organizations.

Barrett Lyon, CEO of security vendor Netography, says the rushed move to remote learning and the comparative lack of preparedness among schools to deal with related cyber threats has left many vulnerable to cyberattack. 

“Schools are sitting ducks” for cybercriminals, he says. Because any attack that disrupts a school’s ability to deliver classes online would be chaotic in present circumstances, criminals know it is easy to shake them down, Barrett says.

Significantly, it’s not just criminals who schools need to contend with. Almost anyone — including students — who wants to disrupt online course delivery are a threat, he says.

One example is a 16-year-old student in Florida who launched eight DDoS attacks on networks belonging to the Miami-Dade Public Schools system. The August attacks were designed to overwhelm the school district network and disrupt its ability to deliver classes online. Florida law-enforcement authorities arrested the student earlier this month and charged him with a third-degree felony count and a second-degree misdemeanor charge.

Barrett says he expects such attacks will continue.

“A lot of schools are not equipped to deal even with basic DDoS attacks,” he says.

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

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Cyber Security

6 Crucial password security tips for everyone




[ This article was originally published here ]

This blog was written by an independent guest blogger.
These days, everyone has passwords. Lots and lots of passwords! When I think of how many user accounts with passwords that I have, I probably have dozens. A few for social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn, a few for my favorite media streaming services, one for Nintendo Switch and another for the PlayStation Network, a few for my utilities including electricity and my ISP, a few with Amazon and other online retailers, one with the government to file my personal income taxes, my home WiFi password, a Gmail account for all of my Google and YouTube stuff, accounts to authenticate into a couple of different web browsers, an account for my bank’s website, and there are probably at least a dozen more. And I’m a pretty typical technology user. So chances are, you have many similar…

Kim Crawley Posted by:

Kim Crawley




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Cyber Security

Deadly Ransomware Story Continues to Unfold




A ransomware attack with fatal consequences is attracting notice and comment from around the world.

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s story breaking the news of fatal consequences in a German ransomware attack.

Reaction is continuing to the story of what Reuters says may be the world’s first human fatality directly attributed to a cyberattack. According to the news service’s reporting, the attack, which began on Sept. 10, utilized a known vulnerability in a Citrix VPN as its point of entry. As of today, The University Clinic in Duesseldorf remained unable to admit new patients brought in by ambulance.

Because a woman died after being redirected to another hospital, German authorities are investigating possible manslaughter charges against the still-unknown attackers. “If homicide charges are combined with computer crime charges, it could be a sound idea to attempt imposing a lengthy prison sentence for the attackers, and, potentially, to get more international cooperation in the investigation,” says Ilia Kolochenko, founder and CEO of ImmuniWeb. She warns, though, that “the causation element will likely be extremely burdensome to prove within the context: defense attorneys will likely shift the entire blame on other parties spanning from hospital personnel and its IT contractors in charge of network management and security.”

Terence Jackson, CISO at Thycotic, notes: “According to a recent Check Point report, 80% of observed ransomware attacks in the first half of 2020 used vulnerabilities reported and registered in 2017 and earlier — and more than 20% of the attacks used vulnerabilities that are at least 7 years old.”

The pre-existing vulnerability means that “there was time to mitigate the threat in theory, but it illustrates the importance of running vulnerability scans and acting on findings at least every 30 days if not more frequently,” says Mark Kedgley, CTO of New Net Technologies. The potential disruption of those scans, he says, must be weighed against the operational requirements of 24 x 7 organizations like hospitals.

Dark Reading will continue to follow this story.

For more, read here.

Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and … View Full Bio

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Cyber Security

Incident Of The Week: Equinix Is The Latest In A Long Line Of Ransomware Victims




[Records Exposed: Undisclosed  |  Industry: Internet  |  Type Of Attack: Ransomware]

Equinix is the latest victim in a long line of ransomware targets. The data center and colocation service provider released a short statement on September 9 that read,

“Equinix is currently investigating a security incident we detected that involves ransomware on some of our internal systems. Our teams took immediate and decisive action to address the incident, notified law enforcement and are continuing to investigate. Our data centers and our service offerings, including managed services, remain fully operational, and the incident has not affected our ability to support our customers. Note that as most customers operate their own equipment within Equinix data centers, this incident has had no impact on their operations or the data on their equipment at Equinix. The security of the data in our systems is always a top priority and we intend to take all necessary actions, as appropriate, based on the results of our investigation.”

The threat actors are demanding $4.5 million in exchange for a decryptor and the promise that they won’t release stolen data. However, Equinix updated their statement on September 14 to reiterate that customers’ data and operations remain safe.

Related: Cyber Security Standards and Frameworks

It appears the guilty party is the young cybercriminal group known as NetWalker who first burst on the scene in August of 2019. Their success lies in their ability to automate ransomware attacks, including a countdown clock and prefab ransom note that populates at just the right time during the operation. Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) poses an increasing threat across the cyber security landscape, as it allows inexperienced or less technical hackers purchase the automation software needed to execute such a hack.

With NetWalker acting as the gatekeeper, hacker groups go through a screening process before gaining access to a web portal that holds NetWalker’s ransomware, which can then be customized to fit their specific needs. NetWalker’s commission of 20% has earned the group $25 million between March 1 and July 27.

Lessons Learned:

If it seems like ransomware attacks have been in the news a lot lately, it’s because they have. In fact, a report by Coalition discovered that in the first half of 2020, 41% of cyber insurance claims were ransomware incidents. It was also reported that, while ransomware attacks are becoming slightly less frequent, their rate of success and size of target are growing. In other words, the increasingly sophisticated strategies of these threat actors poses real risks to even the most developed enterprise.

Related: How To Preemptively Track Phishing Campaigns

While ransomware attacks are specific in their execution, the vulnerabilities exploited to make them possible are the same as most other cyber threats. Specifically, 54% of cyber attacks are achieved through email (malware) and phishing schemes.

Quick Tips:  

Ransomware attacks rely in part on lax cyber protocols. In order to best safeguard your enterprise from this growing threat, consider the following:

  1. Back up data smartly – One of the ways cyber criminals convince corporations to pay ransoms is by holding their data hostage by encrypting it. While most enterprises back up their data, it is often located in the same compromised infrastructure the original data. Consider backing up data to external drives or a second cloud service provider.
  2. Choose a reputable security suite – Standard antivirus software and basic firewalls may be sufficient for the layperson, but enterprises should invest in a security suite that uses smart tools and sophisticated algorithms to spot and, if possible, remove ransomware. The tool must be able to run in the background 24/7.
  3. Install Software Updates – Cyber criminals look for the path of least resistance. Such a path is usually found in outdated software that hasn’t downloaded the most up-to-date patches, bug fixes, and other newly designed features. Remember to keep all apps, plug-ins, and third-party software up to date as well.

Read More: Incident Of The Week


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