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Rise of Ransomware Attacks in the Education Sector
The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), an organization of the UK Government that provides cybersecurity guidance and support, recently reported that it has continued to respond to an increased number of ransomware attacks against schools, colleges and universities in the UK.
“As of late May/June 2021, the NCSC is investigating another increase in ransomware attacks against schools, colleges and universities in the UK,” NCSC said. The NCSC previously highlighted an increase in ransomware attacks on the UK education sector during August/September 2020 and again in February 2021.
Ransomware and Its Impact
Ransomware is a type of malicious software (malware) that’s traditionally known to encrypt victims’ files, preventing victims to access these files. After file encryption, a ransom note is shown on the compromised computer informing the victim to pay a certain amount, typically in the form of cryptocurrency, for the decryption tool that would unlock the encrypted files.
More recently, ransomware operators threaten victims to release files stolen from the victim’s network in case of refusal to pay the ransom for the decryption tool. More ransomware operators have recently employed the double ransom tactic, in which, a victim is asked to pay two ransom payments.
The first ransom payment is for the decryption tool while the second ransom payment is for the non-publication of the files stolen from the victim’s network. Ransomware operators maintain “name and shame” websites on the darknet to name and shame ransomware victims who continue to refuse to pay ransom.
“In recent incidents affecting the education sector, ransomware has led to the loss of student coursework, school financial records …,” NCSC said. According to the NCSC, ransomware attacks in the education sector can have a devastating impact on organizations, with victims requiring a significant amount of recovery time to reinstate critical services, and these events can also be high profile in nature, with wide public and media interest.
An attack vector refers to the path or means in which an attacker gains access to an organization’s network to deliver a malware, in this case, a ransomware. According to the NCSC, ransomware attackers can gain access to a victim’s network through remote access systems, phishing emails, and other vulnerable software or hardware.
According to the NCSC, attackers gain access to victims’ networks through remote access systems such as remote desktop protocol (RDP) and virtual private networks (VPN). RDP is a proprietary protocol developed by Microsoft that allows employees working from home to access their office desktop computers or servers from another device over the internet.
The shift towards remote learning over the past year as a result of COVID-19 restrictions resulted in many organizations deploying VPN access as VPN is viewed as a secure way of accessing company networks and private resources. In recent years, multiple security vulnerabilities have been discovered in RDP and in a number of VPN appliances such as Citrix, Fortinet, Pulse Secure and Palo Alto.
According to the NCSC, phishing emails are frequently used by attackers to deploy ransomware. An attacker sends a phishing email – disguised as coming from a legitimate sender – to trick the email receiver to click a link or download an attachment, enabling the deployment of the ransomware into the email receiver’s computer.
Other Vulnerable Software or Hardware
According to the NCSC, unpatched or unsecure devices have commonly been used by ransomware attackers as an easy route into networks. An example of a software vulnerability exploited by ransomware attackers to install ransomware on a network is the vulnerability in Microsoft Exchange Servers.
The NCSC added that ransomware attackers have recently been observed sabotaging backup devices in order to make recovery more difficult; encrypting the entire virtual servers, and using scripting environments, for example, PowerShell, to easily deploy the ransomware.
Cybersecurity Best Practices
Here are some cybersecurity best practices as recommended by the NCSC that can be employed by organizations in the education sector in order to prevent and mitigate the effects of ransomware attacks:
Keep up-to-date and tested offline backups.
As ransomware attackers have been known for sabotaging internet-exposed backup devices in order to make recovery more difficult, it’s important to keep offline backups to recover from a ransomware attack.
Secure remote access systems (RDP and VPN) via strong passwords, multi-factor authentication (MFA), and applying patches in a timely manner.
Implement effective vulnerability management and patching procedures.
Implement the following mechanisms to prevent phishing attacks: making it harder for email from your domains to be spoofed by employing the anti-spoofing controls, filtering or blocking incoming phishing emails, training your users particularly in the form of phishing simulations, and building a culture where users can report phishing attempts.
Steve E. Driz, I.S.P., ITCP