Education

Howard University Gradually Bounces Back from Ransomware Attack

Students, Staff Address Ongoing Cyberspace Situation

Howard University (HU) resumed online and in-person instruction in the third week of September after a ransomware cyberattack brought most activity to a halt for several days.

For the time being, students, faculty and staff have access to some of the university’s most common applications.  

As administrators explained on Sept. 12, recovery will happen in phases and in a manner that ensures continuity of operations. 

In the aftermath of service disruptions and the compromise of important data, some students, like Kaya Freeman, relished the gradual return to normalcy. 

“Some people clicked a link and gave their passwords to the hackers,” said Freeman, a freshman from West Bloomfield, Mich. 

“It’s been hard in terms of watching television, using your computer and writing papers.  Teachers postponed deadlines because you can’t go online unless you have a hotspot. It’s affecting our schoolwork but you do what you can on campus.” 

A Growing Threat 

In ransomware attacks, hackers use phishing emails to steal user credentials and access to IT networks.

They then block institutions’ access to networks and leverage stolen information to demand their target pays a hefty sum. Over the last couple of years, tactics have included threats to sell stolen information on the darkweb if demands aren’t met. 

In 2020, the average ransom demand totaled more than $312,000, a report by Unit 42/Palo Alto Networks determined. 

Since its detection of unusual activity on Sept. 3, HU has collaborated with external forensic experts and law enforcement officials to fully investigate the cause of the ransomware attack and its impact. 

HU told The Informer that its response team, composed of in-person and remote personnel, has used its resources to add new secure systems. 

Such tools build upon security updates the university has implemented over the years with the aid of what officials described as expert cybersecurity partners. 

Over the last few days, much of HU’s focus has been on protecting data and strengthening its network, all while keeping HU community members abreast of the ongoing situation.  

“Faculty, staff, and students should soon expect audits concerning devices and access credentials associated with university work and operations,” Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer Tashni-Ann Dubroy and Provost & Chief Academic Officer Anthony K. Wutoh said in a Sept. 10 statement. 

“These audits will require sweeping of phones, laptops, and other digital work tools, which may be susceptible to data breaching. All university usernames, email addresses and other login credentials will be verified for authenticity, access privileges, and activity.

Preventing Future Ransomware Attacks

Throughout the pandemic, and in the months leading up to the full return to in-person learning in the U.S., threats of ransomware attacks, phishing emails, identity theft against K-12 and collegiate institutions have increased.  

In July, cybersecurity group Check Point Security recorded an average of 1,700 cyberattacks per week, an increase of nearly 30 percent from the first half of the year.  

That’s why experts encourage institutions to tighten access to critical documents and utilize encryption to deter hackers. Additional safeguards include multi-factor authentication, software updates, and training employees to detect phishing attempts. 

Finding Community in all the Confusion

On Monday, HU freshman Kayla Austin attempted to jump back into the rhythm of academic life, but found doing that a bit difficult. By the late morning, her dorm still didn’t have wifi, and one of her teachers, unable to access the Blackboard academic portal, canceled class. 

Throughout much of last week, Austin traveled to Georgetown to access wifi, complete homework, and conduct her photography/videography business. She said such moments not only taught her lessons in time management, but highlighted the importance of having a village. 

“The community has made up for it in a sense,” said Austin, 18, who hails from the suburbs of Chicago.

“My teachers have been accommodating. My assignments have been pushed back, but a lot of us will have to spend some time getting our classes back on the right track to make up for what we’ve gone through this past week.” 

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