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UCSF Pays Cybercriminals $1.14 Million to Recover Files After Ransomware Attack

Late last week, the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) revealed that it paid roughly $1.14 million to cybercriminals to recover data encrypted during a ransomware attack earlier this month.

The incident happened on June 1 and UCSF said that it was able to contain it quickly after discovery, though not before certain systems were affected.

IT systems within the School of Medicine were quarantined to contain the attack, and the core USCF network was not affected, the University said. Patient care delivery operations, COVID-19 work, and the campus network were not impacted either.

“While we stopped the attack as it was occurring, the actors launched malware that encrypted a limited number of servers within the School of Medicine, making them temporarily inaccessible,” UCSF says.

The university says that it does not believe the attackers targeted specific servers within its network, but encrypted them “opportunistically.” The affected servers are expected to be fully restored soon.

“The attackers obtained some data as proof of their action, to use in their demand for a ransom payment. We are continuing our investigation, but we do not currently believe patient medical records were exposed,” the university says.

UCSF also notes that the data encrypted during the attack was part of academic work. Due to the importance of that data, the university decided to pay “some portion of the ransom, approximately $1.14 million,” for a decryption tool that allowed it to restore data.

The university has yet to provide details on how the attackers breached its network. The NetWalker ransomware operators are believed to have carried out the attack.

As Carl Wearn, head of e-crime at Mimecast, pointed out in an emailed comment, victims are recommended to never pay the ransom, as there’s no guarantee they would recover their data. Furthermore, paying becomes an incentive for cybercriminals to continue engaging in similar attacks, as paying victims are considered financially viable.

“Non-networked backups and a fallback email and archiving process need to become standard security measures if organizations are to significantly mitigate ransomware threats. Individual users can also assist greatly by being aware of the potential for unsafe attachments, but should also be wary of clicking any email links received in any communication, as criminals are increasingly utilizing URL links rather than file-based attachments to infect networks,” Wearn continued.

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