Ransomware attack rocks NMHU, resulting in canceled classes, days-long tech outage | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #ransomware

Apr. 7—New Mexico Highlands University is the latest victim in a series of local cyberattacks: A ransomware attack threatened the university’s cybersecurity defenses last week, resulting in canceled classes and disruptions in employee payroll systems.

Classes — in-person and online — will be canceled through Tuesday, campus officials announced Sunday via an online emergency operations information center.

Initial signs indicate the attack has not jeopardized student or employee data, but further investigation will be required to determine for certain, David Lepre, Highlands’ vice president of marketing, communications and government relations, said in an interview.

“We hope that nothing has been compromised,” Lepre said. “As of right now, nothing points to something being compromised — but we can’t guess and say yes or no just yet.”

Lepre said the college has been in touch with the FBI and various state agencies regarding the attack.

In an email to The New Mexican, Margot Cravens, public affairs officer with the FBI’s Albuquerque field office, declined to confirm or deny whether the office is investigating the matter.

Ransomware is a form of malicious software that encrypts files on a computer system, rendering the system unusable until a ransom is paid, according to the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s #StopRansomware Guide. Essentially, ransomware attackers hold data hostage and insist victims pay to get it back.

On the morning of April 3, Highlands’ information technology department detected a potential threat to the server hosting the university’s MyNMHU Portal, through which students and staff can access essential services like online classes, course materials, campus email, classroom technology and payroll systems, Lepre said.

To isolate the potential attack, university tech officials took the server offline, suspending access to MyNMHU Portal.

Classes will remain canceled through the end of the day Tuesday to complete the necessary repairs because, “even in-person, face-to-face classes are reliant upon technology in the classroom,” Lepre said.

He added the university’s Information Technology and Human Resources departments have set up computers and a help center inside the university’s student union to ensure employees can log their hours and get paid for their work.

“This ransom attack has slowed that process and forced us to find creative ways to get it accomplished. We’re still getting it done,” Lepre said.

Cyberattacks have become increasingly common in New Mexico, with recent attacks targeting district attorneys’ offices, health care providers and hotels.

Highlands fell victim to a ransomware attack in October of 2019, which temporarily halted payroll functions and the university’s “central mission” of providing instruction, then-NMHU President Sam Minner announced on Facebook at the time.

On Friday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued an executive order intended strengthen cybersecurity efforts at state agencies. The order empowers the Department of Information Technology to identify vulnerabilities and eliminate them to the extent possible, with state agencies required to certify compliance by Nov. 1 and then annually.

So far, both the state’s Higher Education Department and Department of Information Technology have been of “tremendous assistance” to Highlands as it responds to the ransomware attack, Lepre said.


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