Nfld. & Labrador

MUN launches 'ransomware' awareness campaign after computers infected

Memorial University of Newfoundland has launched an awareness campaign to help protect its data from hackers after malicious software ended up on at least two computers.

Malware installs on a computer, encrypts data and demands ransom to regain access

Memorial University is warning computer users to be careful which links they click after at least two university workstations were infected with malicious software. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Memorial University of Newfoundland has launched an awareness campaign to help protect its data from hackers after malicious software infected at least two computers.
 
The university's top information technology professional says in both cases malware known as ransomware was downloaded and data was encrypted and locked.

"Ransomware is essentially what it sounds like. It's a situation where you may click on a link or open an attachment and that attachment launches malware which allows your folder to be essentially locked and encrypted," Memorial's chief information officer, Shelley Smith, told CBC's On the Go Monday.

"Then, in order to get them unlocked, you get a message that says pay us x number of — usually bitcoins — and we will unlock your data."

Memorial's chief information officer Shelley Smith says the university gets sent 2.7 million a day, and 92 per cent are spam, phishing attempts or contain malware. (Memorial University)

Smith said the money extorted in this way doesn't typically involve huge amounts, but even after it's paid in full there's no guarantee the information has not already been passed along or sold to someone who will use it for their own purposes.

No ransom paid

In the two confirmed cases where ransomware was used to lock down information at Memorial, it didn't infect other systems at the university.

In both those cases, people at the university were able to recover the data from other sources without paying a ransom to the hackers. 

"In one case that I'm aware of it appeared to be an invoice and the person was actually processing invoices," she said, adding that spammers often know who's who in their target.

"Somebody does research and figures out, you know, who are the finance people, who are the human resources people or whatever the case may be."

Other times, Smith said the organization is flooded with emails masked as invoices, for instance, in the hopes someone clicks on the link and the ransomware is installed. 

Huge and growing problem

Memorial alone gets approximately 2.7 million emails each day. Spam blockers reject 92 per cent of them, but it is far from failproof.

It really does come down to every single individual having to be vigilant.- Shelley Smith

Smith said despite all that's being done to prevent cybercrime, the FBI estimates there are 4,000 successful ransomware attacks daily.

"It only takes one to get into the right person and somebody clicks on a link or opens an attachment and that can launch an attack," she said. "As much as we can be sophisticated with all of the tools that we use, it really does come down to every single individual having to be vigilant."

Smith said one of the biggest things computer users can do to protect themselves is limit the amount of private information they share online.

With files from On the Go