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Cyber attacks target universities

In October, the University of Sunderland was targeted by a cyber attack which left its website and remote teaching services out of action for several days. Other universities in the North East, such as The University of Newcastle and Northumbria University, have previously fallen victim to similar attacks. Why are universities being targeted, and how can we prevent these attacks from happening?

Why are universities being targeted?

In the past couple of years the North East has seen a number of cyber attacks targeting universities. Northumbria University was forced to close the campus, reschedule exams, and was unable to access their clearing hotline after a targeted cyber attack in September 2020. The University of Newcastle also suffered a cyber attack only days before, which completely disrupted IT systems for both students and staff. 

Last year, it was confirmed that the cyber attack on the University of Newcastle was a ransomware attack. Although it isn’t clear whether the cyber attacks which targeted the University of Sunderland and Northumbria University were ransomware attacks, it is suspected that the attacks were similar in nature.

What is a ransomware attack?

A ransomware attack is a specific kind of cyber attack, where perpetrators target a business or organisation with malware. When an unsuspecting user downloads this malware, either through visiting an infected website, or clicking an infected link in an email, the machine and network are encrypted so that applications, programs, services and files are unusable. Users are left a virtual note from the perpetrators which appears on their machine, requesting a sum of money to be paid with a virtual currency like Bitcoin. 

The universities in this case are particularly vulnerable to ransomware attacks, as due to the pandemic, hybrid and remote working is now the norm. Additionally, they store a huge amount of data on students and staff. In the case of the University of Newcastle, perpetrators released some of the data they had on Twitter in an attempt to threaten and coerce the university into paying the ransom.

Although the ransomware attacks that make the news are generally targeting large organisations, ransomware attacks are catastrophic for smaller businesses. Recovering from an attack includes restoring data, but also establishing new practices in order to prevent an attack happening again. The impact on customers and clients, as well as the cost to services being down during the attack, can be devastating. After a cyber attack, around 60% of small businesses go out of business within six months. 

What can universities and businesses do?

In the NHS ransomware attack, WannaCry, perpetrators were able to access the systems due to the fact that the devices were running a version of Microsoft Windows 7 which had not been updated. A vulnerability in the software had been identified and patched by Microsoft, but as the devices had not been updated, perpetrators were able to exploit this vulnerability. Running an up-to-date operating system, and regularly updating your machine is one of the best ways to prevent ransomware attacks. Additionally, having anti-virus software, and scanning your machine regularly helps to keep your business safe.

One of the important things that universities and businesses can do is to have a backup and a disaster recovery plan. If you are targeted by a ransomware attack, you’ll need to be able to recover your data quickly and effectively, and you also need to have a plan in place whilst your IT support team is getting your system up and running again. Transcendit can provide business continuity and disaster recovery, as well as running backups so you can get on with running your business, knowing that you’re prepared for the worst.

Ready to protect yourself against ransomware? Give us a call on 0191 482 0444

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