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Dealing with malware, ransomware -- RIT expert weighs in

Jonathan Weissman, Senior Lecturer, Department of Computing Security, Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences at RIT during a video chat with WXXI News on Feb. 4, 2021.

The Victor Central School District is still not quite back to normal after a computer malware attack last Saturday.

That attack on the Victor district’s computer servers involved what’s known as ransomware, a situation where the hackers encrypt data, trying to force the organization to pay up if they want access to the information stored on their computers.

Victor schools moved to all-virtual learning since  the computer attack also affected the phone system.

Jonathan Weissman is a senior lecturer at RIT in computing security.  He said this kind of ransomware attack has now become more common among larger organizations.

"Ransomware in 2020 took off in a different direction," Weissman said.  "Instead of smaller targets, the ransomware artists are going for the bigger targets nowadays. Especially schools, hospitals and manufacturing related organizations."

Weissman also noted that a lot of the larger organizations have taken the right steps, by backing up their data. But, he said when that happens, the hackers will sometime try to make a different kind of threat.

"When the companies say, ‘No, we’re not going to pay the ransomware demand,’  these ransomware artists threaten to dump the information online which leaves these companies vulnerable to lawsuits and other loss of reputation aspects," Weissman explained.  "They’re sort of being forced to pay even though they don’t have to pay anymore.”

One complicating factor, Weissman said, is that a federal law enacted last year makes it illegal to pay ransomware demands.

Weissman said that another issue is that many people are now working from home, and often the computer software or equipment you are using may not be up to snuff when it comes to blocking malware attacks.  Weissman strongly recommends update operating systems and programs on your computer.

Students at the Victor Central School district in grades 4 to 12 will be virtual the rest of the week.  Also, students at the early childhood school and primary school will be all-virtual on Thursday. Officials don't know yet if students in those schools will be back in the buildings on Friday. You can get up-to-date information on the district's website.

Randy Gorbman is WXXI's director of news and public affairs. Randy manages the day-to-day operations of WXXI News on radio, television, and online.