Ransomware outbreak hits Florida Supreme Court, US universities

by Jacob Fuller

A global ransomware outbreak has scrambled servers belonging to Florida’s Supreme Court and several universities in the U.S. and Central Europe, according to a Reuters analysis of ransom notes posted online to stricken servers.

Those organizations are among more than 3,800 victims of a fast-spreading digital extortion campaign that locked up thousands of servers in Europe over the weekend, according to figures tallied by Ransomwhere, a crowdsourced platform that tracks digital extortion attempts and online ransom payments and whose figures are drawn from internet scans.

Ransomware is among the internet’s most potent scourges. Although this particular extortion campaign was not sophisticated, it drew warnings from national cyber watchdogs in part because of the speed of its spread.

Ransomwhere didn’t name individual victims, but Reuters was able to identify some by looking up internet protocol address data tied to the affected servers using widely used internet scanning tools such as Shodan.

The extent of the disruption to the affected organizations, if any, wasn’t clear. The Florida Supreme Court didn’t respond to messages. Neither did the 12 universities contacted by Reuters, which included the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States, Rice University in Houston, as well as institutions of higher learning in Hungary and Slovakia.

Reuters contacted the hackers via an account advertised on their ransom notes but only received a payment demand in return. They did not immediately respond to additional questions.

Ransomwhere said the cybercriminals appear to have extorted only $88,000, a modest haul by the standard of multi-million dollar ransoms regularly demanded by some hacking gangs. One cybersecurity expert said the outbreak – which is thought to have exploited a two-year-old vulnerability in VMWare Inc. software – was typical of automated attacks on servers and databases that have been carried out by hackers for years.

In response, VMWare has urged customers to upgrade to the latest versions of its software.

“This is nothing unusual,” said Patrice Auffret, founder of French internet scanning company Onyphe. “The difference is the scale.”

Also uncommon is the highly visible nature of the outbreak, which began earlier this month. Because internet-facing servers were affected, researchers and tracking services like Ransomwhere or Onyphe could easily follow the criminals’ trail.

Digital safety officials in Italy said Monday that there’s no evidence pointing to “aggression by a state or hostile state-like entity.”

Samuli Könönen, an information security specialist at the Finnish National Cyber Security Centre, told Reuters that the attack was likely carried out by a criminal gang, although he said it was not particularly sophisticated as many victims had managed to salvage their data without paying a ransom.

“More experienced ransomware groups usually don’t make that kind of mistake,” he said.