University of California San Francisco pays $1.14m ransom to hackers


The University of California San Francisco (UCSF) has admitted to paying approximately $1.14 million to a hacker group called Netwalker in ransom after the group encrypted servers associated with the university’s School of Medicine.

The hacker group struck on 1st June and succeeded in encrypting a number of servers used by the university’s School of Medicine. After detecting the cyber incident on 3rd June, the university successfully isolated the affected servers from the core UCSF network but failed to prevent hackers from using the encrypted data as a bargaining chip.

The university’s School of Medicine serves as an in-house teaching hospital and was involved in Covid-19 related research when the ransomware attack took place. The university insists that despite hackers encrypting several servers, the incident did not affect the school’s patient care delivery operations or Covid-19 work.

“While we stopped the attack as it was occurring, the actors launched malware that encrypted a limited number of servers within the School of Medicine, making them temporarily inaccessible. Since that time, we have been working with a leading cyber-security consultant and other outside experts to investigate the incident and reinforce our IT systems’ defenses. We expect to fully restore the affected servers soon,” the university said in a press release.

“Our investigation is ongoing but, at this time, we believe that the malware encrypted our servers opportunistically, with no particular area being targeted. The attackers obtained some data as proof of their action, to use in their demand for a ransom payment. We are continuing our investigation, but we do not currently believe patient medical records were exposed. As additional facts become known, we will provide further updates.

“The data that was encrypted is important to some of the academic work we pursue as a university serving the public good. We, therefore, made the difficult decision to pay some portion of the ransom, approximately $1.14 million, to the individuals behind the malware attack in exchange for a tool to unlock the encrypted data and the return of the data they obtained,” it added.

Despite paying the ransom, the university said it is still working on completely restoring the affected servers and is presently working with a leading cyber-security consultant and other outside experts to investigate the incident and reinforce the security of its’ IT systems.

Commenting on the incident, Ilia Kolochenko, Founder & CEO of ImmuniWeb, told TEISS that it is possible that hackers behind the ransomware attack exploited a lack of IT asset visibility, improperly implemented security monitoring or patch management to infiltrate the university’s servers.

“Public schools frequently save money on cybersecurity, trying to invest budgets into apparently more appealing areas to deliver more value for students and society. Unfortunately, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and unscrupulous attackers readily exploit any inadequate resilience and unpreparedness to extort money.

“Covid-19 largely exacerbates the situation with the surge of shadow IT, abandoned servers and unprotected applications serving as an easy entry point into disrupted organizations. Crypto currencies turn cyber extortion and racketeering into a highly profitable and riskless business given that in most cases the attackers are technically untraceable and thus enjoy impunity. We will likely see a steady growth of ransomware hacking campaigns targeting the public sector in 2020,” he added.

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