Ransomware: What Is It and How Does It Happen?

While new cyber threats, like deepfake phishing and MFA bombing, are on the rise, older types of threats remain a big danger. Understanding what these threats are is vital to protecting your personal data and UF’s digital environment.

A particularly damaging threat is ransomware — a type of malware that prevents users from accessing their device and the data stored on it. This is usually done by encrypting the files on that device—it can happen on your smartphone, laptop, or PC. The malware is typically introduced through a traditional social engineering scam like phishing. Ransomware attackers claim that if the user pays some amount of money — a ransom — then the attacker will provide the decryption key needed to restore the data. In reality, the hacker may or may not provide that key…even after the victim pays.

If losing access to your data is not bad enough, ransomware attackers often steal copies of the data before they encrypt it and then threaten to release what they’ve found unless the victim pays the ransom. Think about what it would mean for someone, somewhere, to have your personal photos, emails, and documents stored on your device.  Even if you paid to get them back, a year or more later the ransomware attacker could come back and threaten you again with an extortion demand or just decide to put everything they stole from you on a website.

According to Verizon’s 2024 Data Breach Investigations Report, email is one of the most common methods for attackers to carry out “system intrusion” attacks, like ransomware and extortion. Recognizing the signs of phishing, such as strange email addresses, urgent and unusual requests, and suspicious links, can help protect you from a ransomware attack. Regularly backing up the files on your computer to a cloud or external drive can also be helpful if you fall victim to an attack.

UFIT offers several options for cloud file storage at no cost for faculty, students, and staff through the GatorCloud. To learn more about how to back up your entire computer, with both cloud and local options, visit https://security.ufl.edu/learn-security/protect-my/computer/#backup.

Decluttering Your GatorMail Inbox

GatorMail is the University of Florida’s free email and collaboration tool available to faculty, students, and staff. GatorMail is the most secure, convenient way to send and receive emails while you’re a part of the UF community.

Although UF’s Information Security Office employs advanced technologies that block hundreds of millions of malicious external emails each year, some spam, junk, and phishing emails still can make their way into your inbox. It can be more challenging to filter out phishing emails, especially spear phishing messages tailored specifically to the recipient. If you ever receive a suspected phishing email in your GatorMail, report it directly to UF’s Information Security Office by using the Phish Alert Button.

GatorMail’s junk settings can help keep your inbox virtually free of unsolicited messages. Did you know you can report junk, block specific senders and domains, and add filters to your GatorMail? Microsoft Outlook also offers the Clean Up Conversation tool to reduce the number of redundant messages in your inbox. To help prevent spam, it’s not recommended to use your UF email address for third-party accounts and listservs.

Visit https://www.mail.ufl.edu/managing-email/securing-gatormail/ to review UFIT’s email safety tips, including steps to report spam and GatorMail’s email security policies. And, if you need any assistance setting up a GatorMail inbox rule, just stop by the UFIT Help Desk at 132 Hub, across from the Starbucks.

Popular Practicum AI Series Now Available to Everyone

UF Information Technology (UFIT) is making its popular Practicum AI beginner series of courses available online through UF Professional and Workforce Development. The series is available to anyone interested in learning the fundamentals of artificial intelligence, including UF alumni and members of the public that want to understand and apply AI tools. Developed to introduce a broad audience to hands-on applied artificial intelligence applications, the Practicum AI series assumes no prior knowledge of coding or AI, and is a great introduction for professionals in any field where AI can be applied. The beginner series has four courses:

1. Getting Started with AI: An introduction to AI, AI models and their development, and AI ethics. 

2. Computing For AI: An introduction to the computational tools used in AI: Git and GitHub.com and Jupyter Notebooks. Participants will use these tools on either a high-performance computer system or in Google Colab. 

3. Python for AI: An introduction to Python programming and data science tools used in AI. This class focuses on the core aspects needed for applied AI. The course also introduces strategies for working with AI coding assistants to accelerate your skills. 

4. Deep Learning Foundations: An introduction to neural networks, deep learning, and how to train AI models using the skills you’ve gained in the previous three courses.

Each course earns a completion badge, and participants who complete all four courses will earn the Practicum AI Beginner Series digital certificate, issued from Credly. The courses are available to anyone at a modest cost — only $20 per class or $50 if purchasing all four at the bundle price. Practicum AI is free for UF faculty and staff (use discount code “ufstaff”) and for students (use discount code “ufstudent”).

With the beginner series of courses now live, UFIT’s Practicum AI team has begun work creating the Intermediate series. The first of these — Computer Vision — will be offered in-person in Summer 2024. Natural Language Processing and Generative AI courses are also in development. For additional information or questions, please contact UFIT’s Research Computing Training Team leader Matt Gitzendanner (magitz@ufl.edu).

Research Software Engineering Service Offered From UFIT

UF Information Technology’s (UFIT) new research software engineering team are primed to help researchers carry out technically advanced tasks. Services offered include writing custom, expert-quality scientific software and helping faculty address the increased data management and research reproducibility requirements.

Initial funding for this new team is provided by President Sasse’s strategic funding initiative. The research software engineers (RSEs) can enable hero calculations–calculations that require all GPUs of HiPerGator, the University of Florida supercomputer–by developing high performance, scalable, and sustainable research software, improving research staff efficiency, and enabling technology adoption to enhance research outcomes.

Consulting and support from the RSEs include:

  • Leading and supporting the development of domain specific research software utilizing best software engineering practices.
  • Designing, architecting and implementing AI-driven solutions tailored to address complex scientific research problems across disciplines.
  • Designing and developing digital twin technology, encompassing object and system design, process development and optimization, predictive modeling, ensuring integration with multiple systems.
  • Optimizing workflow design for utilizing HiPerGator in running the software● Data management, processing, database setup and maintenance, and data access API development with internal and external data providers.
  • Expert consultation and guidance on cutting-edge software tools, algorithms, and hardware resources.

UFIT’s Research Computing staff looks forward to supporting your research project. Let’s discuss your line of inquiry and identify how our staff can help your project. Contact AI Support Manager Ms. Ying Zhang (yingz@ufl.edu) to begin your RSE consult.

Summer Training Opportunities are Plentiful with UFIT

UF Information Technology (UFIT) is offering a robust training schedule this summer. Commit to enhancing your skillset over the quieter summer months! From May 13 through August 9, 2024, faculty and staff can select from many instructor-led, self-paced, and virtual workshops. There are options for using AI tools, improving Zoom meetings, understanding how DocuSign works, and learning Microsoft collaboration tools and applications. All UFIT training is free.

On the schedule this summer are three self-paced, introductory AI trainings:

  • AI in the Workplace
  • Introduction to AI Image Generator Tools
  • Prompt Engineering: Working with AI Text Generators and AI Image Generators

A two-part Qualtrics workshop series will also be offered twice, with participants who complete the series earning a Qualtrics certificate. For those looking to use non-research survey tools for administrative needs, registration is also open for Google Forms and Microsoft Forms web training.

UFIT Training provides year-round training on numerous topics to enhance the academic and professional skills and academic needs. Plan your summer training by starting with the IT service catalog listing: https://it.ufl.edu/services/it-training. Anyone with questions about our training or would like to discuss a custom training for their department is welcome to email ufit-training@ufl.edu.

Refreshing Your Account Security

UF Information Technology (UFIT) recommends evaluating the security of all of your online accounts. Strengthening your passwords for important accounts such as personal email, online banking access, and social media can protect you from some of the most damaging hacks. 

It is extremely important to use a different password on each site, so hackers can’t use passwords stolen from one account to break into your other accounts. One strategy recommended by security professionals is to use a “passphrase” made up of four or more random, unrelated words. Surprisingly, this is a stronger password than one made up of random letters and characters and is much easier to remember!  UF requires strong passwords for GatorLink account credentials. A common misconception about your GatorLink credentials is that you can’t use words found in a standard American dictionary as your password. But if your password is longer than 18 characters, then words are allowed. So, the next time you update your UF credentials, consider using a passphrase.

UFIT also recommends setting up multi-factor authentication (MFA) on your non-UF critical accounts. MFA solutions for external applications work like how Duo Mobile works at UF: your mobile device generates a one-time access code that you enter to access the account. By configuring MFA on your accounts and using the ‘Authenticator App’ option when doing so, you add an extra layer of security even if hackers compromise your password. All mobile devices can store MFA codes in the same Duo Mobile app you already use for UF. Alternatively, Apple devices can store those MFA codes in iCloud Keychain, where they will sync and autofill across your personal devices (including Windows via the iCloud application).

Beyond MFA, some companies now offer support for passkeys. A passkey uses an on-device verification mechanism, such as Face ID or a screen lock passcode, to verify your identity and allow access to an online account. Passkeys by design are more secure than passwords and provide protection against phishing, because they don’t require you to remember anything! Check out this demo to discover how passkeys work and visit the Passkey Directory for a list of websites that support passkeys today. 

Taking steps to secure your accounts is an investment in protecting your identity, money, and online image and reputation. For more information on creating secure passwords: https://security.ufl.edu/learn-security/passwords/ 

Securely Connect to UF Files and Services from Anywhere

The UF virtual private network (VPN) provides remote access to the university network by serving as a “tunnel” that connects your device as if you were physically on campus. By using the UF VPN, faculty, students, and staff can securely access multiple UF resources protected by the network’s firewall that otherwise would be inaccessible while off campus, including:  

The UF VPN isn’t required to access UF’s GatorCloud services or administrative sites, such as ONE.UF and myUFL, when off campus. However, the UF VPN gives users a secure online environment to complete their work. When studying abroad, working in a public space, or even submitting your assignments from home, using the UF VPN adds a layer of protection by encrypting your internet traffic and shields you from malicious actors..

No matter where you are in the world, you only need an internet connection to use UF’s VPN — whether that’s with your own wireless network, public Wi-Fi, or your phone’s cellular data. For step-by-step instructions and to confirm that your device’s operating system is compatible, visit: https://it.ufl.edu/ict/documentation/network-infrastructure/vpn/cisco-secure-vpn-installation–config-guide/. The UFIT Help Desk can assist you with VPN configuration 24/7! Call our friendly tech support team at 352-392-HELP or email helpdesk@ufl.edu.  

Learn R Programming This Summer

UF Information Technology’s (UFIT) free eight-module introductory R Programming course returns this Summer. The online, self-paced course will run from May 13 to July 19. UF faculty, staff, postdocs, graduate students, and teaching assistants are welcome to enroll.

The Summer 2024 course syllabus is available for review for anyone considering taking the course. Registration is open through 5:00 p.m. on May 10. Participants can sign up for any of the eight sessions, but beginners are strongly encouraged to attend the first three sessions that cover the basics. The eight modules of the course are:

  • Introduction to R
  • Data Preparation
  • Exploratory Data Analysis
  • Mean and Median Comparison
  • ANOVA, Correlation, and Bivariate Linear Regression
  • Multiple Linear Regression
  • Proportion Comparison
  • Logistic Regression

All registrants must have completed at least one graduate-level course in statistics prior to the May 13 start date. Anyone with questions about UFIT’s R Programming training can email the instructor, Dr. Jose Silva-Lugo.

Advancing UF Research Inquiry and Reputation

The NVIDIA AI Technology Center (NVAITC) at UF is proving to be a valuable asset to the University of Florida’s research community. Since its inception and through Feb. 2024, the NVAITC has supported 10 completed and 15 in-progress HiPerGator projects. This is in addition to providing expertise for 25 conference presentation proposals and 26 journal articles accepted for publication.

The NVIDIA AI Technology Center at UF is the first NVAITC center in North America. The center’s purpose is to advance AI education and research while fostering partnerships between higher education and industry. Hosting the NVAITC enables UF researchers to adopt the latest NVIDIA technologies and accelerate research projects. Additionally, the NVIDIA workshops held on campus have been attended by more than 2,400 faculty, students, and staff, equating to a value of more than $1 million in free, advanced AI training.

Faculty interested in scheduling a consult about a research project supported by the NVAITC are welcome to contact Dr. Kaleb Smith, senior data scientist and manager of the NVAITC. Dr. Smith and UFIT’s AI Support Manager Ms. Ying Zhang (yingz@ufl.edu) are both available for consultation during the initial exploration process of your research project.

Prepare to Leave UF’s GatorCloud Environment

Commencement is around the corner, which means graduating Gators should prepare for life after college. For those graduating or not continuing to take classes at UF following the spring 2024 term, Gators should prepare to lose access to multiple digital services. Review the following list of resources to make the appropriate arrangements:

GatorMail: Your UF email account will be deactivated 365 days after graduation or 365 days since last being registered for a class. If you have signed up for any third-party services (such as Instagram or Spotify) using your GatorMail email credentials, change your login and account recovery information on those accounts before you get locked out. Also, forward any important attachments or information you may have kept in your GatorMail to another email account or storage option.

UFApps: Access to UFApps is deactivated once you are no longer a student. Allot time to go through UFApps and transfer any useful coursework files and unfinished projects you want to keep to a personal storage option.

If you have any account questions or need assistance before saying goodbye to the university’s digital environment, please contact the UFIT Help Desk by calling 352-392-HELP/4357, or visiting in person at 132 Hub (across from the Starbucks.).