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Computer Attacks Across Upstate Share A Common Theme Of Gaining Entry, Locking Administrators Out And Then Demanding Ransom 

FBI Must Brief Congress On A Plan To Better Combat Attacks Targeting Local Schools & Governments

Schumer: Feds Need To Take A Mega Bite Out Of Ransom Hackers—Or They’ll Get Even Bolder

During a conference call with reporters, and in the wake of Upstate New York school districts being targeted by destructive ransomware cyber-schemes, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer today pushed a multifaceted plan to prevent hackers from taking schools and the personal information of New York students hostage. Schumer explained that in recent months, school districts across the state, from Central New York to the Rochester-Finger Lakes Region to the Hudson Valley, have been zeroed in on by hackers using ransomware, which is an insidious type of malware that encrypts, or locks, a computer’s operating system and all of its valuable digital files until a ransom is paid. Schumer explained that not only have these attacks left the personal information of students, including names, birthdays and social security numbers, compromised, but they have also resulted in schools having to cancel days of class.

To address the scourge of ransomware attacks across Upstate New York, Schumer today pushed a two-pronged plan. First, Schumer called to expediently consider and pass the DHS Cyber Hunt and Incident Response Teams Act, which was introduced by Senators Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Rob Portman (R-OH) and co-sponsored by Schumer. The legislation would authorize the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to maintain and strengthen cyber hunt and incident response teams to assist in protecting state and local entities from cyber threats and help restore the functionality of private or public infrastructure following an attack. A similar bill has already passed in the House of Representatives. Second, Schumer urged the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) to ensure its field offices have the resources necessary to investigate and identify the perpetrators of the attacks in New York and demanded a briefing from FBI on how to better prevent future attacks. Schumer said taken in tandem, the two measures would be a critical step towards thwarting hackers and ransomware attacks throughout New York, helping to protect students’ personal information and school resources from harm.

“Over the last few years, and especially in recent months, our communities and school districts throughout Upstate New York have fallen victim to hackers and their malicious ransomware, which infiltrates computer systems and holds hostage the personal information and vital data of our students, school employees, families, school boards and local governments. It’s clear that our state is under siege from these attacks, and we must do more to ward them off,” said Senator Schumer. “That’s why today I’m pushing a two-pronged effort to fight back against these cyber-crooks by urging Congress to quickly pass the DHS Cyber Hunt and Incident Response Team Act and by calling on the FBI to quickly and thoroughly investigate the incidents that have plagued New York and once the ongoing attacks and subsequent investigations conclude, immediately brief me and Congress on their findings. These hacks show that our local communities, governments, schools and businesses need more help from the federal government to defend themselves from this threat, and I’m fighting to do just that, so we can take a mega bite out of ransomware before the crisis gets worse.”

Once a computer is infected with ransomware, it can be extremely difficult to recover the compromised files until the ransom is paid. Hackers are able to do this by extorting businesses, individuals and institutions when they infect computers with malware and encrypt their data, thereby taking computers and smartphones hostage, and then charge a ransom to retrieve it. Due to advances in technology, it is often very difficult—if not impossible—to trace. Beyond school districts, Schumer explained that hackers also regularly target businesses, police departments, hospitals, banks and other institutions that hold a large amount of sensitive, personal information. Schumer added that ransomware has two major, devastating consequences. First, victims cannot use the computer systems on which they depend until files are unlocked, rendering them virtually paralyzed in today’s digital age. But more importantly, victims’, including children’s, personal information is often compromised when hackers gain access to a computer housing confidential information including financial records, medical reports, social security numbers and more.

In recent months, Upstate New York has been blanketed by malicious ransomware attacks, from one corner of the state to the other. Schumer explained that, according to reports, on July 8th of this year the Syracuse City School District was breached by ransomware and forced to pay a $50,000 insurance deductible to regain access to its computer systems. The July ransomware attack kept Syracuse City School District locked out of its operating system for roughly a 24 hour period, and additionally damaged its website, email system, and phones and ran the risk of exposing students’ private information to hackers. Similarly, Schumer explained, that same month in the North Country, the Watertown City School District was also attacked by ransomware. Furthermore, over the past few years, a major uptick in ransomware attacks has been reported among Rochester-Finger Lakes Region school districts. At least two attempted ransomware attacks have targeted the Rochester City School District recently, and in 2016, the Holley Central School District was hacked, with the private information of many employees being exposed in the process.

Schumer added that school districts in the Hudson Valley have been particularly impacted by the scourge of ransomware. This month, the Monroe-Woodbury School District had to cancel its first day of class, September 4th, due to an attempted intrusion by hackers. Furthermore, in 2016, the Rhinebeck School District was struck by ransomware and was temporarily locked out of its system. The hackers demanded $500 from the Rhinebeck School District in exchange for returning access to its computers.

Ransomware has also targeted other types of public entities, including local governments and police departments. This March, according to reports, the City of Albany was plagued by malicious ransomware. The attack on the city impacted other municipal systems, with locals unable to receive documentation like birth certificates, death certificates and marriage licenses for days. The Schuyler County Sheriff’s Department was also inflicted by ransomware in 2017, with the incident resulting in the county’s 911 emergency system reportedly being taken offline. Schumer said that while, fortunately, Schuyler County was able to regain access to its 911 emergency system without any major incidents occurring, the consequences could have been devastating.

Furthermore, hackers frequently target private entities with ransomware as well. This June, hackers attempted to break into the Olean Medical Group’s computer system. The personal information and records of patients were protected during the incident, however, it did lead to Olean Medical Group taking its computer system down. This forced doctors seeing patients to chart on paper, rather than digitally. And in 2017, the Erie County Medical Center was devastated by ransomware. Reportedly, the ransomware attack rendered over 6,000 computers inoperable, with hackers demanding roughly $30,000 in bitcoin as payment. Schumer explained that while Erie County Medical Center refused to pay the ransom, the incident in total cost the organization a total of $10 million for new computer software, hardware, technical assistance and overtime pay for employees.

To stop the ever-present threat of malicious ransomware attacks on Upstate New York, Schumer pushed a two-pronged plan. First, he called on Congress to expediently consider and pass the DHS Cyber Hunt and Incident Response Teams Act. The legislation, which is cosponsored by Schumer, would authorize DHS to maintain, strengthen and conduct oversight of Cyber Hunt and Incident Response Teams. These teams, Schumer explained, would then be sent to both public and private entities upon request, giving them advice on how best to fortify their computer systems and prevent both ransomware and other types of cyber-attacks, as well as additional technical support. Should an organization fall victim to ransomware or another type of cyberattack, these federally-resourced teams would also be available to assist with incident response.

Second, Schumer, in a letter to the FBI, urged the agency to continue providing the necessary resources to field offices across Upstate New York to sufficiently investigate the attacks and identify their perpetrators. And upon finishing its investigation into the swaths of ransomware attacks across Upstate New York, Schumer requested the FBI immediately brief him on the details of those attacks and others experienced by states and localities across the country. Schumer explained that such a briefing would help Congress understand the law enforcement challenges posed by the attackers’ use of cryptocurrencies and what additional funding or authority should be provided to ensure future attacks can be stopped. Schumer said that the prevalence of the ransomware attacks and their consequences illuminate a clear and present need to do more to deter them, and that taken in tandem, the two measures in his plan would be a critical step towards doing just that.

A copy of Schumer’s letter to the FBI appears below.

Dear Director Wray:

I write regarding recent ransomware attacks that have caused significant disruptions to school districts and local governments in New York.

As you are aware, more than 40 municipalities across the country have reportedly been the victims of ransomware attacks this year alone. In New York, victims of these destructive attacks over the past year have included: the City of Albany, the Monroe-Woodbury Central School District in the Hudson Valley, the Olean Medical Group in Rochester, the Syracuse City School District and Onondaga County Public Library system in Syracuse, the Watertown School District and the Rockville Centre School District in Long Island.

These attacks have successfully crippled access to computer systems, compromised sensitive personal information, and in some cases, led to payment by local governments to hackers in the form of cryptocurrency. The Department of Homeland Security recently described this disturbing trend as a “ransomware outbreak” and as one of the most visible cybersecurity risk playing out across our nation’s networks.

In response to this surge, the FBI has increased its efforts to respond to this cybersecurity threat. In addition to tracking incidents through the Internet Crime Complaint Center known as “IC3,” the FBI has targeted the criminals perpetrating these attacks from locations in outside the United States, including Eastern Europe. The FBI has also enlisted the assistance of international law enforcement partners to locate the stolen or encrypted data, identify perpetrators, and assist victims in implementing countermeasures to avoid similar incidents in the future.

I am grateful for all the work the FBI continues to do in investigating to and deterring cyber-attacks against our nation, including any assistance to local communities that have been targeted by ransomware. Accordingly, I urge the FBI to make sure its local offices continue to have the resources necessary to investigate and identify the perpetrators behind these ransomware attacks in the New York and help ensure they are brought to justice. After your investigations are complete, I also request a briefing regarding the details of these recent attacks in New York and similar attacks on other municipalities and states, including law enforcement challenges posed by the attackers’ use of cryptocurrencies, to better understand what additional funding or authority should be provided by Congress to prevent similar attacks.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.