NCSC warns of a surge in ransomware attacks on education institutions

Pierluigi Paganini September 20, 2020

The U.K. National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has issued an alert about a surge in ransomware attacks targeting education institutions.

The U.K. National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), has issued an alert about a surge in ransomware attacks against education institutions. The British security agency is urging the institutions in the industry to follow the recommendations to mitigate the risk of exposure to ransomware attacks.

“This criminal targeting of the education sector, particularly at such a challenging time, is utterly reprehensible.” “While these have been isolated incidents, I would strongly urge all academic institutions to take heed of our alert and put in place the steps we suggest, to help ensure young people are able to return to education undisrupted.” Paul Chichester, Director of Operations at the NCSC, said.

“We are absolutely committed to ensuring UK academia is as safe as possible from cyber threats, and will not hesitate to act when that threat evolves.”

This summer the NCSC investigated an increased number of cyber attacks on universities, schools, and colleges, most of them were hit with ransomware.

The attacks continued over time, recently the Newcastle University was hit with DoppelPaymer ransomware.

“With institutions either welcoming pupils and students back for a new term, or preparing to do so, the NCSC’s alert urges them to take immediate steps such as ensuring data is backed up and also stored on copies offline.” reads the advisory. “They are also urged to read the NCSC’s newly-updated guidance on mitigating malware and ransomware attacks, and to develop an incident response plan which they regularly test.”

The NCSC also provided info about the initial infection vectors observed in the ransomware attacks:

  • Insecure Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) configurations
  • Vulnerable Software or Hardware
  • Phishing emails

The agency recommends to implement an effective vulnerability management and patch management process, and of course to secure RDP services.

Once gained the foothold in the target network, the attackers will attempt lateral movements to elevate the privileges and search for high-value machines to encrypt (i.e. backup servers, network shares, servers, auditing devices).

In some attacks, government experts also observed the sabotage of backup or auditing devices to make recovery more difficult, the encryption of entire virtual servers, the use of scripting environments (i.e. PowerShell) to easily deploy tooling or ransomware.

NCSC education institutions

Below the list of recommendations provided by the agency that includes the use of updated antivirus software and anti-phishing defense measures:

To prevent attackers exploiting flaws to force the execution of their code the organization recommends:

  • install security updates as soon as they become available in order to fix exploitable bugs in your products
  • enable automatic updates for OSs, applications, and firmware if you can
  • use the latest versions of OSs and applications to take advantage of the latest security features
  • configure host-based and network firewalls, disallowing inbound connections by default

Recently Check Point researchers warned of a surge in the DDoS attacks against education institutions and the academic industry across the world.

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Pierluigi Paganini

(SecurityAffairs – hacking, education institutions)

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