ITS Director: New Mexico Community Helped Mitigate Cyberattack

LAS VEGAS, NM – New Mexico Highlands’ work to recover from its recent cyberattack was made easier thanks to support from the Las Vegas community and throughout New Mexico, according to the university’s director of information technology.

IT Director Joe Gieri said experts from the United World College, West Las Vegas Schools, the City of Las Vegas and Desert Gate helped his staff mitigate the attack, which resulted in cancelled classes in late October.

“It was really amazing to see everyone stepping up to help,” Gieri told the approximately 100 people who attended, both in person and online, a public forum on the cyberattack. “It really makes you proud to be a part of the community.”

In addition to local experts, staff from the University of New Mexico, several private companies, and many Highlands faculty, staff and students assisted in containing the attack.

The cyberattack infected university computers with ransomware, a code that locks users’ files with a demand the computers’ owners pay a fee for a decryption code. The university did not pay any money to the hackers, according to Gieri.

Gieri said the ransomware used to infect the university’s computers was a new code, and Highlands was one of the first institutions to be infected with it.

“We looked on several databases the first day to assess what we were dealing with, and there was no information,” Gieri said. “Several days later, there were a number of reports of this particular ransomware being used.”

Gieri told the forum’s attendees Highlands updated its computer systems with a new security software suite that will help identify unusual activity on the institution’s computer networks, shut down that activity and alert technical staff.

“Is there a chance this can happen again?” Gieri asked. “The answer is ‘yes.’ These attacks impact universities and schools around the country, and we have to be extremely vigilant.”