Two-Thirds of Universities Hit by Ransomware Hackers

ransomware universities malware cybersecurity bitcoin
Students pick up their mortarboards after the official hat-throwing photograph at the University of Birmingham, England, July 14, 2009. Almost two-thirds of U.K. universities have suffered a ransomware attack in the last year. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Nearly two-thirds of universities in the U.K. have had their computer systems held up for ransom by hackers, according to a study.

Freedom of Information requests sent by security firm SentinelOne revealed that 63 percent of 71 universities questioned have been hit by a type of malicious software called ransomware, which demands bitcoins or other digital currency in return for gaining back control of their IT systems.

"For those universities hit by multiple attacks, we believe it is the same attackers looking to mass infect organizations in the hope that one will pay up," Scott Gainey, chief marketing officer at SentinelOne, tells Newsweek.

"We call it a 'spray and pray' attack; the high numbers don't necessarily represent multiple individuals attacking the same university."

The value of ransoms demanded to decrypt the data ranged between £77 ($102) and £2,229 ($2,950). However, only one of the universities targeted contacted the police; all others said that they preferred to deal with it internally.

Remarkably, Oxford University and King's College London reportedly admitted to not having any antivirus software to protect them from ransomware attacks.

King's College has denied this claim, telling Newsweek in a statement: "King's takes all forms of information security and compliance very seriously.

"In accordance with our IT Security and IT Network Policies, King's College London use a variety of anti-virus solutions which are reviewed and changed as appropriate. As virus attacks are so prevalent we do not advertise our specific defences."

The study also revealed Bournemouth University, which hosts a cybersecurity center, suffered 21 ransomware attacks in a single year.

"These findings shine a light on the growing ransomware threat and the fact that universities are seen as potentially lucrative targets," says Gianluca Stinghini, a lecturer in security crime science at University College London. "The high proportion of attacks, and the fact that many have been hit multiple times, could be down to a number of factors.

"They hold sensitive data on staff and students… [and] email addresses for staff are often in the public domain, which means that potentially the entire staff could be targeted at once, increasing the chance of successful infections."

Update| This article has been updated with a comment from King's College London.