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Six out of 10 universities have been victims of ransomware

Freedom of Information requests reveal worrying figures

Posted by Hannah Oakman | August 30, 2016 | E-safety

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed that 63% of British universities who responded admitted to being the target of a ransomware attack. Over half of these have 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, a next generation end point protection company, in July 2016 to establish if ransomware was a significant problem in academic institutions. 

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. Only Brunel university had ever contacted the police in relation to a ransomware attack, with most universities preferring to deal with the situation internally.

Public authorities are increasingly becoming primary targets for ransomware attacks. Earlier this year it was revealed that 30% 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. 

“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. ” said Jeremiah Grossman, Chief of Security Strategy at SentinelOne. “The fact that 65% 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.”

Gianluca Stinghini, Lecturer and Assistant Professor, Department of Computer Science, and Security Crime Science, University College London, comments, “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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