Brit college forced to shift all teaching online for a week while it picks up the pieces from ransomware attack

Plus: Stop bigging up these despicable criminals


An English college has temporarily closed all eight of its campuses and moved all teaching online after a "major" ransomware attack "disabled" its IT systems.

South and City College Birmingham (SCCB) has told its 13,000 students that all lectures will now be delivered via the web – and has urged them to stay away from the college's campuses for the rest of this week.

"The College has suffered a major ransomware attack on our IT system which has disabled many of our core IT systems," the institute said in a note to students posted on its website. "The College buildings will be closed to students for a week from Monday 15th March to allow our IT specialists to fix the problem."

Younger students - the 14 to 16-year olds getting vocational and academic qualifications at the college - will start to return on Monday, the college said.

There was no further information about the identity of the ransomware crew involved. We have asked SCCB for comment.

The FE Week news website for higher education professionals reported earlier this week that "servers and workstations connected to [the college's] domain" had been ransacked by criminals, with "a volume of data" being exfiltrated.

The authorities and the Information Commissioner's Office have been informed, according to FE Week.

Ransomware attacks are fairly commonplace in the COVID-19 era after much of the world shifted to remote working. It is relatively unusual for an organisation to state outright that it has been hit by ransomware, with most British orgs (including the University of the Highlands and Islands) preferring the coy phrase "cyber incident".

Educational bodies are merely the latest fashionable target among ransomware extortionists. Typically their attacks consist of either finding a vulnerable device on a target network and entering it through that, or a staffer opening a malware-laden email attachment. Either way, the criminals gain a foothold in the network from where they can deploy their software.

The ransomware itself works, as most Reg readers know, by encrypting all the files on the network and leaving a ransom note with contact details for the extortionists. In return for a hefty payout, usually seven figures, the criminals offer to send the decryption key to the victim. Variations on the theme include searching for and destroying backups as part of the attack; persisting in a target network for a period of time to poison regular backup runs; and stealing copies of sensitive and valuable data to ransom off separately.

This form of criminality has become very high profile, not least because of news reporting but also because its perpetrators fancy themselves as a cut above ordinary criminals – and some people buy into that self-created image.

Unethical

Infosec company Recorded Future, perhaps unwisely, gave a ransomware criminal claiming to be the leader of the REvil gang a platform from which the extortionist bragged about his "brand reputation".

The podcasters are not alone: the lure of ransomware gangs' infamy has also tempted the BBC, which last year seemingly allowed itself to be used as a force multiplier by a ransomware gang negotiating a payoff with a victim.

Recorded Future published a screenshot from a cybercrime forum where one crook boasted of making "calls to the media… to exert maximum pressure" on ransomware victims. Evidently the threat intel firm's staffer didn't make the connection between their own activity and the manipulation practised by the crooks.

The standard British government advice used to be never to pay a demanded ransom, and that is still sound advice today. In recent months the National Cyber Security Centre's line has shifted somewhat, opening the door to cyber-insurance providers who'll buy off extortionists on their clients' behalf. ®

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