Cyberattack on Butler college part of growing trend; experts urge vigilance to thwart hackers – TribLIVE

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Organizations that keep sensitive information in their computer systems can’t do much to avoid being targeted by cyberattackers.
But experts say they can do things to reduce the damage wreaked by an attack.
A cyberattack on Butler County Community College’s computer system forced the campus to shut down Monday and Tuesday. It is part of a growing number of incidents in which hackers lock down a computer system and demand payment, using a process known as “ransomware.”
According to the FBI, during the first six months of this year the number of ransomware attacks increased by 62% over 2020 and resulted in $16.8 million in losses for those targeted.
“There’s a lot of jargon used to describe what these attacks are, but they are really nothing more than old-school extortion schemes,” said Jason Killmeyer, a Pittsburgh-based national security expert specializing in emerging technology applications.
Killmeyer said hackers typically lock access to a computer system’s files and demand a ransom be paid in the form of untraceable cryptocurrency in exchange for a “key” to unlock the files.
He said it is critical for organizations to keep their computer security software up to date. For employees and other computer users, the best defense is simple: Don’t fall for scam emails — known as “phishing” — that trick you into giving hackers access to the system. Those are emails that try to look like legitimate queries from a bank or other businesses and ask for log-in information.
But organizations might be be able to avoid paying a ransom by making the information hackers want less valuable, Killmeyer said.
“If you have appropriate backups in place, you make yourself less vulnerable,” he said. “You want to be able to shrink the magnitude of the decision about whether you pay the ransom to resume normal operations and accept the loss of those files.”
Killmeyer said public institutions that lose the data they collect risk losing the public’s trust.
“If a hospital loses all its patients’ medical records in an attack, nobody is going to trust them,” he said. “And the same goes for government organizations, educational institutions and companies that have a lot of personal information in their files.”
Officially, the U.S. government discourages institutions that have been attacked from paying ransom demands. But there is no law against paying a ransom, and many organizations make payments in order to restore service in a timely fashion.
Killmeyer said educational institutions “are primed” to be targeted by hackers because they have so many people using their computer systems.
“Colleges have led the way with the virtual online experiences, but that may have made them vulnerable,” he said. “Think of all the students, teachers, staff and people from associated institutions logging into the system. They all provide entry points for hackers.”
Christopher Deluzio is policy director of the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security. He said one of the biggest roadblocks to tamping down ransomware attacks is the anonymity of cryptocurrency.
He said any discussion about combating cyberattacks “is incomplete if we don’t talk abut cryptocurrency and the role it plays in how the ransoms are paid.”
“How unregulated cryptocurrency is remains a big part of making these attacks more likely to succeed, because it can’t be traced as easily as traditional currency,” he said.
Deluzio said cyberattackers typically have two criteria when seeking a target: “vulnerability and the ability to pay the ransom.”
Government entities and other public institutions such as schools are viewed as having the means to pay up. Beyond that, hackers sponsored by other nations target public institutions “to try to shake confidence in those organizations. I think we’ll continue to see attacks on government functions, including those surrounding elections,” he said.
Deluzio says taking steps to plug security holes and protect sensitive data and remaining vigilant are critical to avoid being hacked.
He said practices such as backing up files to a separate location, requiring dual-factor authentication to log in, installing spam filters and keeping software up to date “sound mundane” but are essential to eliminating or reducing threats.
“You want to be in the position of having prevented an attack, not negotiating around how to mitigate one that has already succeeded,” he said.
At Butler County Community College, officials determined the ransomware attack began Nov. 19, with major problems starting Nov. 24. The college has not issued statements about its strategy of dealing with the attacker, beyond pledging to restore its systems.
The BC3 case is the most visible ransomware attack locally in recent years. In July 2018, the Westmoreland County Housing Authority was subject to a ransomware demand of $40 million, but the case was settled without major disruption and officials said no ransom was paid.
A local high school and business were part of an international computer hacking case unveiled in Pittsburgh in 2019. Two Russian nationals were indicted for hacking into the computer systems of Sharon High School in Mercer County as well as banks and businesses. The case stretched back to 2011 and involved straight theft, not ransomware.
Nationally, recent high-profile events include the May ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline, which carries gasoline and other fuel from Texas to the northeast. It led to fuel shortages in parts of the United States. The company paid a ransom of 75 bitcoin worth about $4.4 million at the time.
An attack on JBS SA, the world’s largest meat processing company, threatened to disrupt food supplies in the U.S. and Australia. The company paid the equivalent of $11 million to hackers who broke into its computer system.
Tony LaRussa is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tony at 724-772-6368, [email protected] or via Twitter .
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