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A week after network intrusions, UTEP warns staff to stay off campus computers

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A week after its computer networks appear to have been attacked, the University of Texas at El Paso is warning employees to stay off of campus computers as it struggles to bring systems back online.

“As we continue to restore services in the coming days, please continue to work from home and refrain from turning on or making any changes to campus computers until we provide another update that it is safe to do so,” UTEP officials said in a news release Thursday night.

A notice sent Thursday night to Liberal Arts faculty and staff said: “No one should be going on-campus and interacting with any UTEP computer at this time.”

UTEP announced late Thursday that student and faculty email had been restored. But the university also said it is still working to restore key financial and student services.

The university has said it took its computer networks offline March 5 after detecting an “unauthorized and potentially malicious intrusion.” UTEP officials have provided little information about the nature of the intrusion.

The FBI, the lead federal agency for investigating cyber attacks and intrusions,said university officials have not contacted the agency. 

UTEP officials have said no personal information appears to have been compromised. 

Sophomore public health student Desiree Rangel said the computer systems failures has been a nerve-wracking experience.

“We had a midterm due Friday night and we couldn’t turn it in,” Rangel said. “I was concerned because it’s a good chunk of our grade.”

As a transfer from El Paso Community College who saw “how transparent they were,” UTEP’s response has been disappointing.

“I would have liked to see a little bit more transparency and something from Heather Wilson like ‘this is going on,’ ‘don’t worry it’ll get fixed soon,’” she said. “I really wish they would have sought out help from the FBI.”

Abeni Merriweather, a sophomore commercial music major,  believes UTEP hasn’t provided enough information about what is happening.

“We’re talking about a university that is known for its technological advances and research. But yet they’re having trouble with restoring their networks,” Merriweather said. “It shows us that UTEP networks aren’t as secure as we think.”

FBI special agent Jeanette Harper said the agency’s El Paso office investigated 249 reports of cyber crime in 2020, with total reported losses of $6 million. 

She warned that cyber attacks are a societal problem.

“We, as a society, are putting more and more information onto computer networks and increasing the surface space for attacks. At the same time, there are criminal organizations, nation states, and others that are persistently attacking networks throughout the world,” she said. The FBI provides extensive advice on how individuals and organizations can protect against cyber crime.

Cover illustration by Marco Verch.

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Jewél Jackson

Jewél Jackson covers higher education for El Paso Matters, through a partnership with Open Campus Media. She is a 2020 graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

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