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TBI assisting after Pellissippi State computer network brought down by suspected ransomware attack

The college said Tuesday it is working with law enforcement and computer forensics experts to respond to the attack.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — UPDATE (12/8/21): The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said agents in its Technical Services Unit are providing assistance after an apparent ransomware attack brought down Pellissippi State Community College's network system.

The college said it is working with outside computer forensics experts and law enforcement to investigate and fix the outage, but have not provided specific details about the nature of the attack -- including if any data on the network is at risk of being compromised or deleted, which is typically how criminals demand a ransom in these types of attacks. 

As finals week arrived, Pellissippi State Community College students ran into trouble.

"I had the essay done pretty much. It was 11:59. I couldn't submit it," dual enrollment student Rowen Wilkinson said. "I ended up emailing my teacher last night with the essay and everything on my personal email."

He also brought a paper copy to class just in case. Other students were emailed exams.

"After the whole ransomware thing happened, none of my finals were super impacted," Kendell Church said. "They've just worked through email and not through a Brightspace quiz."

Brightspace is the program PSCC students typically use to access their coursework and correspond with their professors.

Charlie Hamilton took most of his exams on paper, instead of online.

"We've been taking them mostly in person," Hamilton said. "The ones that were online, we took in person at the testing center."

Hamilton said they've been updated regularly by the Tennessee Board of Regents, but is concerned as to whether his information was compromised.

"That is the only concern is the information behind that," he said. "You never know who is behind a cyber attack or ransomware or any of that situation."

Rowen Wilkinson said he isn't as concerned.

"I don't have my credit card or anything on the Pellissippi page," he said. "They might take my email or something like that and I might get more spam."

The college reported Monday morning that it was experiencing "some network issues"  impacting computer operations. All network connections on all campuses were down, according to the college.

On Tuesday, it said it determined the outage appeared to be due to a ransomware attack, which is a type of malware that encrypts and locks out access to network systems before malicious actors demand some form of ransom to restore access. Typically, these attacks set a deadline and threaten to steal or erase data stored on the compromised networks if the ransom isn't paid, but Pellissippi State has not said if that's the case yet with this attack.

"The College has currently contained the matter and is working to get its computer systems operational as soon as possible," the college said.

Pellissippi State said it is now working with computer forensics experts and law enforcement. The Tennessee Board of Regents said the college is insured by the state cyber policy, saying the forensics firm that was hired cost about $450 an hour with a cap of up to $500,000 on a time and materials basis.

TBI said it is not sure how much the response will cost yet.

The college posted an update Tuesday on its website for students and faculty:

"We are still working on the network systems outage. Faculty and students need to use the email inside Brightspace to communicate. If you cannot get into Brightspace with the alternate link, call HelpDesk at 865-694-6537 to help you access Brightspace. 

Not all users have access to email or Teams, and if you do, you may lose access. It’s safe to use email or Teams for communication if you are already logged in, but don’t share or move files. 

Virtual Student Services will be open today to help answer your questions. See the Zoom link above. Commencement is still set for 7 p.m. Friday at Thompson-Boling Arena."

The disruption occurred as the college prepared for this week's commencement.

Staff members Monday had to disconnect computers and leave WiFi.

Credit: Pellissippi State
College's notice about computer network outage.