ALERT: Iranian Hackers Infiltrated 144 Universities in the U.S. Stealing $3.4 Billion. Is Your Data Safe?

According to Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Iranians connected to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were recently charged with conducting a massive cyber theft campaign on American and foreign universities, businesses and government agencies.

Iranian Hackers

AG Rosenstein states:

The stolen information was used by the IRGC or sold for profit in Iran. They hacked the computer systems of approximately 320 universities in 22 countries. 144 of the victims are American universities. The defendants stole research that cost the universities approximately $3.4 billion to procure and maintain.

They also attacked computer systems of the U.S. Labor Department, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, United Nations, and the states of Hawaii and Indiana.

When hackers gain unlawful access to computers, it can take only a few minutes to steal discoveries produced by many years of work and many millions of dollars of investment.

For many decades, the United States has lead the world in science, technology, research, and development.

Academic institutions are prime targets for foreign cybercriminals. Universities can thrive as marketplaces of ideas and engines of research and development only if their work is protected from theft.

The events described in this indictment highlight the need for universities and other organizations to emphasize cybersecurity, increase threat awareness, and harden their computer networks.

Every sector of our economy is a target of malicious cyber activity. Everyone who owns a computer needs to be vigilant to prevent attacks.

This type of criminal activity does not just cause economic harm. It also threatens our national security. Identifying and prosecuting computer hackers is a priority for the Department of Justice.

Hostile individuals, organizations, and nation-states have taken note of our success. They increasingly attempt to profit from American’s ingenuity by infiltrating our computer systems, stealing our intellectual property, and evading our controls on technology exports.

The FBI Considers These Individuals State-Sponsored Hackers

FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich reports:

“During a more than four-year campaign, these state-sponsored hackers compromised approximately 144 U.S.-based universities and 176 foreign universities in 21 countries… When the FBI learned of the attacks we notified the victims, so they could take action to minimize the impact. And then we took action to find and stop these hackers.”

The special agent from the FBI’s New York Division who investigated the case tells us:

“Their primary goal was to obtain usernames and passwords for the accounts of professors, so they could gain unauthorized access and steal whatever kind of proprietary academic information they could get their hands on. That information included access to library databases, white papers, journals, research, and electronic books. All that information and intellectual property was provided to the Iranian government.”

Is Your Data at Risk?

The Small Business Administration believes it is. Here’s what they recommend you do:

  1. Protect against viruses, spyware, and other malicious code. Make sure each of your business’s computers is equipped with antivirus software and antispyware and updated regularly. Such software is readily available online from a variety of vendors. All software vendors regularly provide patches and updates to their products to correct security problems and improve functionality. Configure all software to install updates automatically.
  2. Secure your networks.
    Safeguard your Internet connection by using a firewall and encrypting information. If you have a Wi-Fi network, make sure it is secure and hidden. To hide your Wi-Fi network, set up your wireless access point or router so it does not broadcast the network name, known as the Service Set Identifier (SSID). Password protect access to the router.
  3. Establish security practices and policies to protect sensitive information.
    Establish policies on how employees should handle and protect personally identifiable information and other sensitive data. Clearly outline the consequences of violating your business’s cybersecurity policies.
  4. Educate employees about cyber threats and hold them accountable. 
    Educate your employees about online threats and how to protect your business’s data, including safe use of social networking sites. Depending on the nature of your business, employees might be introducing competitors to sensitive details about your firm’s internal business. Employees should be informed about how to post online in a way that does not reveal any trade secrets to the public or competing businesses. Hold employees accountable to the business’s Internet security policies and procedures.
  5. Require employees to use strong passwords and to change them often. 
    Consider implementing multifactor authentication that requires additional information beyond a password to gain entry. Check with your vendors that handle sensitive data, especially financial institutions, to see if they offer multifactor authentication for your account.
  6. Employ best practices on payment cards 
    Work with your banks or card processors to ensure the most trusted and validated tools and anti-fraud services are being used. You may also have additional security obligations related to agreements with your bank or processor. Isolate payment systems from other, less secure programs and do not use the same computer to process payments and surf the Internet.
  7. Make backup copies of important business data and information
    Regularly backup the data on all computers. Critical data includes word processing documents, electronic spreadsheets, databases, financial files, human resources files, and accounts receivable/payable files. Backup data automatically if possible, or at least weekly, and store the copies either offsite or on the cloud.
  8. Control physical access to computers and network components
    Prevent access or use of business computers by unauthorized individuals. Laptops can be particularly easy targets for theft or can be lost, so lock them up when unattended. Make sure a separate user account is created for each employee and require strong passwords. Administrative privileges should only be given to trusted IT staff and key personnel.
  9. Create a mobile device action plan.
    Mobile devices can create significant security and management challenges, especially if they hold confidential information or can access the corporate network. Require users to password protect their devices, encrypt their data, and install security apps to prevent criminals from stealing information while the phone is on public networks. Be sure to set reporting procedures for lost or stolen equipment.

Protect all pages on your public-facing websites, not just the checkout and sign-up pages.

Protect information, computers, and networks from cyberattacks. Keep clean machines: having the latest security software, web browser, and operating system are the best defenses against viruses, malware, and other online threats. Set antivirus software to run a scan after each update. Install other key software updates as soon as they are available.

Provide firewall security for your Internet connection. A firewall is a set of related programs that prevent outsiders from accessing data on a private network. Make sure the operating system’s firewall is enabled or install free firewall software available online. If employees work from home, ensure that their home system(s) are protected by a firewall.

Create a mobile device action plan. Mobile devices can create significant security and management challenges, especially if they hold confidential information or can access the corporate network. Require users to password protect their devices, encrypt their data, and install security apps to prevent criminals from stealing information while the phone is on public networks. Be sure to set reporting procedures for lost or stolen equipment.

Control physical access to your computers and create user accounts for each employee. Prevent access or use of business computers by unauthorized individuals. Laptops can be particularly easy targets for theft or can be lost, so lock them up when unattended. Make sure a separate user account is created for each employee and require strong passwords. Administrative privileges should only be given to trusted IT staff and key personnel.

Limit employee access to data and information, and limit authority to install software. Do not provide any one employee with access to all data systems. Employees should only be given access to the specific data systems that they need for their jobs and should not be able to install any software without permission.

The increased frequency of cybercrime of cybercrime incidents has raised concerns and stakes for both small and large businesses. Your IT Managed Services Provider will help you fight and prevent cybercrime of all kinds. They will be your best friend in this regard. Don’t wait to contact them.

Semper Fi: Never Negotiate With Cyberterrorists

A recent report by the U.S. Marine Corps indicates an unintended data disclosure, the result of a single accidental keystroke. Never backing down from a fight, learn from Jarheads how to best defend yourself from a data breach and strengthen your position!

US Marines Data Disclosure

Have you ever thought twice about clicking “send” after drafting an email? We’re sure you have; everyone has. The most common reasons involve editing the text for clarity, context, or tone. Sometimes you verify the email addresses for the “to” field. These are all great measures that everyone can — and should — take before sending an email, especially one with sensitive data enclosed.

Yet, accidents happen. A recent accidental keystroke shared an email to an incorrect distribution list, which included the unencrypted personal data of more than 20,000 U.S. Marines, their families, and civilians. Social security numbers, bank details, credit card information, home and mailing addresses, and emergency contact information were all disclosed. Does this fall under the label of “data breach” if the disclosure was part of an “oops” and not a cyber attack?

Marine Forces Reserve spokesperson Andrew Aranda has said the Marines’ IT staff is reviewing cybersecurity and information assurance processes to update their overall guidelines and to better train team members at every level. More importantly, this was an accident without malicious intent, and a cybersecurity vulnerability was not the cause. Additionally, the United States Armed Forces branches fully understand the great responsibility to protect highly-confidential personally identifiable information (PII) stored in their records and a lengthy history of excellence in this arena.

More than 20,000 individuals will now need to diligently check their credit report on a regular basis to ensure this disclosure doesn’t leave them open to identity theft. Add to this number the family members potentially impacted, and the full amount affected could double or triple. This is a story too well-known by millions of Americans in recent years. Customers of Anthem, Target, eBay, and The Home Depot are just a few examples of organizations whose customers have been impacted by data breaches. Cybercriminals and cyberterrorists — hackers — are just waiting for a weakness to exploit. This introduces two key questions:

  • How effective are an organization’s cybersecurity protocols and training?
  • What can consumers do to protect themselves if they’ve been impacted by a data breach?

How aware are the individuals behind this incident of security protocols and risks? The basic information assurance training from as recent as a year ago isn’t current for today’s needs as a means of self-awareness and protection.

  • What is information assurance? When information is processed, stored, or transmitted (data) involving systems, there are risks. Information assurance is the effort a group takes to protect this data and these systems to ensure the security of the data and minimize risks involved.

The focus of information assurance is on the security of data. While “protection of data” may not be the first concept that comes to mind when you think of the United States armed forces, the protection of its people is an inherent byproduct of its very nature. The military does not operate in the same ways as Corporate America, with many factors contributing to the differences. One thing is certain: the military takes its duty to serve and protect American citizens very seriously and is dedicated to assisting those impacted.

How can consumers protect themselves?

Credit Reports

As we already mentioned, check credit reports regularly. Once a cybercriminal has a name, address, and a few pieces of personal information, this data can be used to misrepresent an identity online.

  • Consumers are entitled to one free credit report each year, at https://www.annualcreditreport.com/
  • Anyone can add a fraud alert to their credit report with each credit reporting agency for added protection. This will prompt a two-step verification process for any attempt to open a new account in someone’s name, and is a very helpful feature to protect someone’s identity from being used by other parties.

Passwords

Aside from checking credit reports, we strongly suggest changing all passwords. Most importantly, start with changing passwords for online banking, credit cards, email, and social media accounts. After these, move on to seemingly innocuous accounts like the United States Post Office and those for magazines or local newspapers, with active subscriptions.

  • It’s worth it to keep a list of all locations with usernames and passwords. Imagine how helpful this list might be in this situation, cutting response time drastically and potentially reducing the overall impact. Just don’t store the list somewhere online, like email. If that is the first thing a hacker can access, they have access to everything after discovering this data goldmine!
  • Make sure new passwords created are complex, using a combination of capital and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols like ?!@#$%.
  • Change passwords on desktop systems to prevent a sophisticated hacker from accessing further personal data, or giving them the smallest access point to plant a virus or ransomware, or even mine cryptocurrency.
    • Running the most recent updates and install these packages immediately will help close any security gaps discovered by operating system manufacturers and application developers.

Credit Cards

In this case, credit card numbers were included in the disclosed data. It’s a huge pain, but it’s worth it in the long run for protection to report the accounts as compromised and have new card numbers issued.

Every day brings a story of new ways hackers use to access PII of consumers and how this information is used to their advantage – and to the detriment of the consumers affected. Consumers need to regularly assess their risk and do their best to eliminate the unknown, where possible by taking these measures to protect themselves. Maintaining a realistic perspective on this risk will be instrumental as “an ounce of prevention” here.

In modern days of digital communication, we can never be too careful as hackers are becoming far more sophisticated and staying one step ahead of consumers. Imagine if cybercriminals used their power for good!

Don’t let one mistake cause years of hassles and headaches – talk to an expert if you think you’ve been compromised in this or any other data breach, and protect yourself.