A recent university cyberattack in the United States resulted in more than 5,000 systems being taken out of action.
The university cyberattack only became apparent after the IT department was flooded with complaints from staff and students that the Internet had slowed to a snail’s pace. By the time that the cyberattack was identified, the attack had spread to multiple systems and devices, resulting in major headaches for the IT department. Attempts were made to bring systems back online but they failed. Not only had IoT devices been compromised, passwords were changed by the attackers. The IT department was locked out and was prevented from gaining access to any of the compromised devices.
The attack involved a range of devices. Even campus vending machines had been loaded with malware and were under the control of the attackers. In total, 5,000 smart devices were compromised in the attack and had been added to an emerging IoT botnet.
An investigation was launched which revealed the extent of the attack. Virtually the entire IoT network had been lost to the attackers. Everything from smart lightbulbs in street lamps to drink-dispensing vending machines had been infected with malware and made part of a botnet.
The IoT devices were making hundreds of DNS lookups, preventing users from performing web searches or visiting websites. In this case, the devices were being used to make seafood-related searches. So many searches that genuine use of the Internet was prevented.
Once the first devices were compromised, the infection spread rapidly. Every IoT device connected to the network was attacked, with the devices brute-forced until the correct username and password combo was found. The devices were then loaded with malware and added to the botnet. The speed at which the IoT devices were compromised and loaded with malware was due to the use of weak passwords and default login credentials. The university, for convenience, had also made the mistake of loading all IoT devices onto one network.
Once the attackers had gained access to an IoT device and loaded their malware, they had full control of the device. To prevent removal of the malware, the attackers changed the password on the device, locking the IT department out.
Once that had occurred, the only way the IT department thought it would be possible to remove the malware and regain control would be to replace every IoT device. All 5,000 of them.
However, before such a drastic measure was taken, the university sought external assistance and was advised to use a packet sniffer to intercept clear-text passwords sent by the attackers to the malware-compromised devices. The university was able to read the new passwords and regain access to its IoT devices. Passwords were then changed on all 5,000 devices and the malware was removed.
A university cyberattack such as this can cause considerable IT headaches, major disruption for staff and students, and involves a not insignificant resolution cost. However, the university cyberattack could have been avoided. Even if an attack was not prevented, its severity could have been greatly reduced.
Had strong passwords been set, the attackers would have found it much harder to infect devices, buying the IT department time and allowing action to be taken to mitigate the attack.
While it is easy to see why all IoT devices were included on a single network, such a move makes it far too easy for cybercriminals to spread malware infections. It is never wise to put all of one’s eggs in the same basket. It is also important to ensure that networks are separated. If access to devices on one network is gained, damage will be limited.