Friday, August 6, 2021

Michigan State University and Trusted CI Collaborate to Raise Awareness of Cybersecurity Threats to the Research Community

Ransomware is a form of cybercrime that has risen to the same level of concern as terrorism by the U.S. Department of Justice. The United States suffered more than 65,000 ransomware attacks last year and victims paid $350 million in ransom, with an unknown amount of collateral costs due to lost productivity. Historically, research organizations have been largely ignored by cybercriminals since they do not typically have data that is easily sold or otherwise monetized. Unfortunately, since ransomware works by extorting payments from victims to get their own data back, research organizations are no longer immune to being targeted by criminals.

An event of this nature occurred in the Physics and Astronomy department at Michigan State University (MSU), which experienced a ransomware attack in May 2020. While many organizations attempt to keep the public from finding out about cyberattacks for fear of loss of reputation or follow-up attacks, MSU has decided to make elements and factors of its attack public in the interests of transparency, to encourage disclosure of similar types of attacks, and perhaps more importantly, to educate the open-science community about the threat of ransomware and other destructive types of cyberattacks. The overarching goal is to raise awareness about rising cybersecurity threats to higher education in hopes of driving safe cyberinfrastructure practices across university communities.

To achieve this, the CIO’s office at MSU engaged with Trusted CI, the NSF Cybersecurity Center of Excellence, in a collaborative review and analysis of the ransomware attack suffered by MSU last year. The culmination of the engagement—based on interviews of those involved in the incident—is the report “Research at Risk: Ransomware attack on Physics and Astronomy Case Study,” which focuses on lessons learned during the analysis. The report contains mitigation strategies that other researchers and their colleagues can apply to protect themselves. In the experience of Trusted CI, there was nothing extraordinary about the issues that led to this incident, and hence, we share these lessons with the goal of motivating other organizations to prevent future negative impacts to their research mission.

The engagement ran from January 2021 to July 2021.