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University of California San Francisco has paid a $1.14 million ransom to the operators of NetWalker ransomware to resolve an attack that saw data on servers within the School of Medicine encrypted. The attack occurred on June 1, 2020. UCSF isolated the affected servers, but not in time to prevent file encryption.
UCSF School of Medicine is engaged in research to find a cure for COVID-19 and the university is heavily involved in antibody testing. The ransomware attack did not impede the work being conducted on COVID-19, patient care delivery operations were not affected, and UCSF does not believe the attackers gained access to patient data, although some files were stolen in the attack.
The encrypted data was essential to research being conducted by the university, and since it was not possible to recover files from backups, UCSF had little option other than to negotiate with the attackers. “We therefore made the difficult decision to pay some portion of the ransom, approximately $1.14 million, to the individuals behind the malware attack in exchange for a tool to unlock the encrypted data and the return of the data they obtained,” explained UCSF.
The BBC received an anonymous tip-off about a live chat on the dark web between the negotiators and the NetWalker ransomware operators and followed the negotiations. According to the report, a sample of data stolen in the attack was posted online by the attackers, but after UCSF made contact via email the data was taken offline while the ransom was negotiated. Initially, a ransom payment of $780,000 was offered by UCSF, but the NetWalker gang demanded a payment of $3 million. A payment of 116.4 Bitcoin – $1,140,895 – was finally negotiated a day later.
The investigation into the ransomware attack indicates that neither UCSF nor the School of Medicine were targeted in the attack. “Our investigation is ongoing but, at this time, we believe that the malware encrypted our servers opportunistically, with no particular area being targeted,” explained UCSF on its website. UCSF reported the attack to the FBI and is assisting with the investigation.
UCSF was one of three Universities in the United States to be attacked with NetWalker ransomware in the space of a week in early June. Attacks were also conducted on Columbia College, Chicago and Michigan State University. Data stolen in the attack on Columbia College has now been removed from the NetWalker website, which suggests the college also paid the ransom.