Ransomware Attacks Now Targeting School Systems

Ransomware Attacks Targeting Schools

Ransomware attacks are nothing new. Thousands of businesses have fallen prey to malicious attackers for decades, paying billions in ransom and disrupting operations from a few days to a few months. And that number is only growing.

According to FortiGuard Lab’s 2021 Ransomware Survey Report, ransomware attacks have increased by almost 1,100% year-over-year. While we most often associate attacks with banks and mega-corporations, the truth is ransomware attacks are no longer for the enterprise only. K-12 and higher education institutions appear to be the latest victims, seemingly fueled by the 2019 COVID pandemic.

The COVID Impact on Ransomware Attacks

The COVID pandemic of 2019 disrupted our lives, how we learn, and our approach to work. As the world was forced to go remote, many organizations weren’t prepared for the shift to remote working and virtual learning. And neither were their security systems and teams.

The Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA) explains how the threat landscape expandedwhen unprepared businesses and schools had to go remote to adapt to the pandemic. Employees, teachers, students, and consumers did everything remotely—shopping, teaching, learning, and working.

School systems became more digitally connected than ever before, using platforms like Zoom and Google Classroom to teach students virtually. And attacks like “Zoom-bombing,” where uninvited guests gain control of screens and disrupt classes, became more commonplace. With such a vast threat landscape, the vulnerabilities were virtually limitless.

The 2022 Labor Day weekend ransomware attack on the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)—the second-largest U.S. school district—is yet another example. Whether they’re attacking one of the largest districts in the country or a small, budget-challenged school district, school ransomware attacks spread far and wide. But the attacks are especially tough on smaller, poorer schools that lacked the resources and didn’t prepare for the immediate shift and technical requirements for remote teaching.

“School districts with limited cybersecurity capabilities and constrained resources are often the most vulnerable; however, the opportunistic targeting often seen with cybercriminals can still put school districts with robust cybersecurity programs at risk. K-12 institutions may be seen as particularly lucrative targets due to the amount of sensitive student data accessible through school systems or their managed service providers.” – FBI and CISA bulletin

But the LAUSD attack is far from the only educational institution impacted. The surge in ransomware attacks on schools has been so profound that President Joe Biden signed the K-12 Cybersecurity Act of 2021 into law to strengthen cybersecurity in schools. The act “directed CISA to work with teachers, school administrators, and private sector firms to develop recommendations and an online toolkit that can help schools improve their security, from securing student data to security challenges with remote learning.”

And after the LAUSD, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) released a joint bulletin warning of even further increases in attacks. That’s on top of the 1,000-plus educational institutions that have already suffered a ransomware attack since 2019.

Despite acts written into law and many warnings and bulletins, schools are still dealing with the ramifications of attacks by malicious actors.

The Implications of Ransomware on Schools

As the name implies, ransomware attacks use malware to “encrypt files on a device, rendering any files and the systems that rely on them unusable. Malicious actors then demand ransom in exchange for decryption. [They] often target and threaten to sell or leak exfiltrated data or authentication information if the ransom is not paid.”

Cybersecurity Dive, an online newsletter for news on cybersecurity, breaches, and threats, shared that, on average, higher education organizations reported average remediation of $1.42 million per attack. K-12 reported an even higher $1.58 million. While these financial payouts are a huge hit to schools, they’re not the only implication of ransomware attacks:

  • Unauthorized access to personally identifiable information (PII). ISACA highlights unauthorized access to confidential information, such as names, addresses, social security numbers, and financial details as one of the most important factors to consider. If accessed by the wrong people (attackers), students (and teachers or staff) could become victims of identity theft. And schools may have lawsuits on their hands for not properly caring for the highly confidential and valuable information hackers accessed in the data breach.
  • Delays, disruptions, and restricted access. The CISA security alert discussed some of the less critical but still impactful ramifications of data breaches within schools. These include restricted access to networks and data, delays in exams, canceled classes for the day, and downtime.According to a 2022 Sophos study of 730 IT professionals in the education sector, it takes twice as long to recover after an attack than with organizations outside of the education industry. Forty percent reported it taking more than a month, 31% said between one and three months, and 9% recovered between three to six months later.
  • The new ransomware target. Education just might be the new prime target for ransomware attacks. The same Sophos study revealed that educational institutions were attacked even more in 2021 than the previous year, impacting nearly two-thirds of higher education organizations. And for K-12? Ransomware hit more than half of them. The attacks have many implications, but for higher ed, 97% of respondents said they impacted their ability to operate, which can have long-term effects, like permanently closing their doors.

How You Can Fight Back

While ransomware attacks aren’t going away anytime soon, whether you’re a 40,000-student college campus or a small rural school, there are ways to fight back. We also recommend working with a team of security professionals who can set up and continually monitor your network to help prevent and mitigate the effects of a data breach.

So, if you’re ready to combat malicious attacks, contact us today to see how Lightstream can protect your school’s data from breaches.

Mandatory 36-Hour Breach Reporting Window for U.S. Banks

Log4j vulnerability unpatched

In November of 2021, the Agencies, comprised of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), and the Federal Reserve Board (FRB), passed a regulation that requires banks to notify regulators no more than 36 hours after they identify that a security incident (that rises to the level of a “notification event”) has taken place. The regulation required full compliance by May 1, 2022. FDIC-supervised banks will report incidents to their case managers while banks that are regulated by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System will need to inform the board. The Agencies explain though that not every data security incident is a notification event. According to the rule, a computer-security incident is “an occurrence that results in actual harm to the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of an information system or the information that the system processes, stores or transmits. An incident requiring subsequent notification is defined as a ‘computer-security incident’ that has disrupted or degraded a banking organization’s operations and its ability to deliver services to a material portion of its customer base and business lines”

 Read the full bulletin

VMWare Infrastructure Actively Exploited to Compromise Organizations

VMWare Infrastructure Actively Exploited to Compromise Organizations

VMWare Infrastructure Actively Exploited to Compromise Organizations. CISA, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, has issued an emergency directive highlighting an escalation of successful attacks against commonly deployed enterprise components of VMWare virtual infrastructure. The directive points to an escalation of successful attack against a series of VMWare vulnerabilities that are exploited independently, or in combination, to fully compromise VMWare infrastructure in these organizations. While VMWare has issued patches for these vulnerabilities, attackers have quickly reverse engineered them to develop and weaponize exploits now appearing in the wild.

The attacks highlighted require network access, but successful attackers have utilized 3rd party network access and web exposed servers to compromise vulnerable VMWare components and gain full access.

Business Impact

Exploitation of this set of vulnerabilities gives attackers complete control over the VMWare virtual infrastructure. This means that critical business systems can be manipulated, destroyed, or silently monitored by attackers. If your organization depends on VMWare components highlighted below your business is likely at risk of compromise.

Security Impact

The CVE numbers for the critically impacted vulnerabilities are CVE-2022-22954, CVE-2022-22960, CVE-2022-22972, CVE-2022-22973; however, the primary point of attack has been CVE-2022-22954 which has a CVSS score of 9.8 (originally published 4/11/22) and results in a potential Remote Code Execution (RCE). It is recommended that any exposed components to the Internet should be assumed compromised and disconnected/investigated immediately. VMWare customers should also immediately deploy additional monitoring of their VMWare infrastructure and monitor for IOCs.

VMWare Infrastructure Actively Exploited to Compromise Organizations Urgent Actions Required

  1. Identify VMWare Workspace ONE Access and Identity Manager infrastructure, scan for vulnerabilities
  2. Disconnect/investigate infrastructure with missing patches exposed to the Internet, or 3rd party access
  3. Urgently apply missing patches described above in VMWare infrastructure, monitor for compromise

Recommendations

The vulnerabilities are present in the following VMWare components: VMware Workspace ONE Access (Access), VMware Identity Manager (vIDM), VMware vRealize Automation (vRA), VMware Cloud Foundation, and vRealize Suite Lifecycle Manager. These should be placed under heightened security monitoring, patches urgently applied (if not already done) and threat hunt activity should be initiated using the available Indicators of Compromise (IOCs). This situation highlights the criticality of operating a vulnerability management program.

 Read the full bulletin

Millions of Log4j vulnerable systems still unpatched

Log4j vulnerability unpatched

A recent survey by Qualys and published in SC Magazine suggests that after over 3 months, roughly 1 in 3 devices and installations that were affected by the Log4j vulnerability are still unpatched. This number amounts to roughly 22 million vulnerable application installations — and it should be noted that these are just the devices that are readily accessible from the Internet.

Log4j reached critical status towards the end of 2021 when it was discovered that a feature its platform could allow an unauthenticated attacker to take complete control over a remote system. The vulnerability was classified in CVE-2021-44228, and has been extensively discussed in cyber security as well as in a published flash with guidance from the government’s cyber security agency, CISA, who published guidance.

 Read the full bulletin

Tepco Glass Migrates to Azure, Increasing Reliability and Setting the Stage for Future IT Modernization

Faced with aging on-premises servers and an unsupported operating system, Tepco Glass moves all applications to Microsoft Azure with help from Lightstream.

Business Challenge

Tepco Glass is one of the top glass and glazing contractors in the United States. Founded in 1982, the Dallas-based company specializes in commercial glazing and architectural design, as well as the installation of curtain walls, window walls, storefronts, entrances, motor operable windows, glass railings, and other façade enclosures.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the construction industry stalled. Many projects were postponed, delayed, or canceled. And the global slowdown cascaded to suppliers and contractors, including Tepco, negatively affecting revenues and cash flow.

Although business was slow and cash flow was tight, Tepco’s business did not stop. The company continued to operate, serving its customers and addressing operational challenges. One challenge they faced involved the company’s IT infrastructure.

Tepco’s core business applications ran on Windows Server 2008 R2 servers located in the company’s small data center in Dallas. The hardware was over five years old, and Tepco’s IT manager was concerned that the aging hardware could lead to equipment failures. In addition, Windows Server 2008 R2 had reached end of life, and the company was no longer receiving support from Microsoft.

Solution

Company executives knew they needed to address the issues. But given the economic realities during the pandemic—business slowdown, a global microchip shortage, and supply chain constraints—they did not want to incur a large capital outlay to purchase new hardware and upgrade to a supported operating system.

They decided to explore the cloud. Moving to the cloud would eliminate the need to refresh hardware. And Microsoft offered an added incentive: if they migrated their Windows Server 2008 R2 environments to Microsoft Azure, the company would receive an additional 36 months of extended security updates for free.

The solution seemed viable, but the company wanted to ensure that it would work. Tepco’s IT manager knew one of Lightstream’s account executives from a previous working relationship, and reached out for help.

The first step was to assess the plan. Lightstream linked Tepco’s VMware environment to Azure Migration to evaluate the feasibility of moving it to Azure. This showed that the migration was viable and that Tepco could save money over the long term. Tepco’s executives were pleased with the findings and approved the project.

Over a period of 12 weeks, Lightstream experts worked with Tepco to plan, configure, and test their Azure environment. Finally, when all testing had been completed and issues resolved, Lightstream moved all of Tepco’s core applications from on-premise servers into the new environment. For ongoing support and optimization of their Azure environment, Tepco will use Lightstream Cloud Managed Services (CMS).

Business Outcomes

Increased Reliability and Availability

Tepco Glass has four locations—two in Dallas, one in Carrollton, Texas, and one in Oklahoma City—as well as other remote users who need access to applications. The Dallas headquarters is located in a section of the Dallas area that doesn’t have the most reliable power or internet service. Consequently, when the headquarters site suffered a power or internet outage, no one could connect from any locations, and their business was disrupted.

By moving all applications to Azure, Tepco no longer has this problem. Even if the Dallas location experiences an outage, users from the other sites are not affected. They can continue working without interruption.

Shift to a Consumption-based Operating Model

Tepco no longer maintains on-premise server hardware. By moving to Azure, they eliminated the need for large capital outlays in the future to address product upgrades and hardware refreshes. And they now have a more predictable operating expense model for IT.

Better Positioned for Future IT Modernization

Tepco is no longer limited by their data center environment. With all server infrastructure now in Azure, they have more flexibility, making it simpler for them to pursue future modernization efforts like virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and others. For example, with all workload in Azure, they don’t need to buy high-end gaming computers for people to do product designs anymore—the heavy processing can now be done in the cloud.

Ongoing Infrastructure Management and Cloud Optimization

By moving to Azure, Tepco no longer has to worry about infrastructure management. Lightstream Cloud Managed Services supports the company’s infrastructure, ensuring servers are patched and maintained, and oversees the company’s Azure environment to make sure it is optimized both for cost and performance.

SOC 2 is the answer – but whose problem is it?

SOC 2 is, with increasing regularity, becoming the go-to certification requirement for companies who handle their customers’ data. SOC 2 is the first step to sales discussions, contracts, and revenue – yet it’s completely misunderstood. Lightstream V.P. of Security Strategy Rafal Los and JustProtect Founder & CEO Vikas Bhatia will de-complify what it takes to achieve certification, and why it’s more about process maturity and evidence than technology.

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