Another school district has fallen victim to a ransomware attack, which has seen files encrypted and systems taken out of action for two weeks. The Leominster school district ransomware attack saw a ransom demand of approximately $10,000 in Bitcoin was issued for the keys to unlock the encrypted files, which includes the school’s entire student database.
School districts attacked with ransomware often face a difficult decision when ransomware is installed. Attempt to restore systems and recover lost data from backups or pay the ransom demand. The first option is time consuming, costly, and can see systems remain out of action for several days. The second option includes no guarantees that the attackers will make good on their promise and will supply valid keys to unlock the encryption. The keys may not be held, it may not be possible to unlock files, or a further ransom demand could be issued. There have been many examples of all three of those scenarios.
The decision not to pay the ransom demand may be the costlier option. The recent ransomware attack on the City of Atlanta saw a ransom demand issued in the region of $50,000. The cost of recovering from the attack was $2.6 million, although that figure does include the cost of improvements to its security systems to prevent further attacks.
School districts are often targeted by cybercriminals and ransomware offers a quick and easy way to make money. The attackers know all too well that data can most likely be recovered from backups and that the ransom does not need to be paid, but the cost of recovery is considerable. Ransom demands are set accordingly – high enough for the attackers to make a worthwhile amount, but low enough to tempt the victims into paying.
In the case of the Leominster ransomware attack, the second option was chosen and the ransom demand of was paid. That decision was taken after carefully weighing up both options. The risk that no keys would be supplied was accepted. In this case, they were supplied, and efforts are well underway to restore files and implement further protections to ensure similar incidents do not occur in the future.
Even though the ransom was paid, the school district was still without access to its database and some of its computer systems two weeks after the attack. Files were encrypted on April 14, but systems were not brought back online until May 1.
Unfortunately for the Leominster School District, ransom payments are not covered by its cyberinsurance policy, so the payment had to come from its general fund.
There is no simple way to defend against ransomware attacks, as no single cybersecurity solution will prove to be 100% effective at blocking the threat. Multiple attack vectors are used, and it is up to school districts to implement defenses to protect the entire attack surface. The solution is to defend in numbers – use multiple security solutions to create layered defenses.
Some of the most important defenses include:
- An advanced firewall to defend the network perimeter
- Antivirus and anti-malware solutions on all endpoints/servers
- Vulnerability scanning and good patch management policies. All software, systems, websites, applications, and operating systems should be kept up to date with patches applied promptly
- An advanced spam filtering solution to prevent malicious emails from being delivered to end users. The solution should block all executable files
- Disable RDP if it is not required
- Provide security awareness training for employees and teach staff and students the skills to enable them to identify malicious emails and stop risky behaviors
- A web filtering solution capable of blocking access to malicious websites
The cost of implementing these solutions is likely to be far lower than the cost of a ransom payment and certainly lower than the cost of mitigating a ransomware attack.