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Assessing the cyber security threat to UK Universities

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Class clown hackers cost education sector millions

The threats facing the UK’s world-leading universities and the steps they can take to protect themselves are outlined today (18 Sept) in a report from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), a part of GCHQ.

The NCSC’s threat assessment aims to raise awareness of state-sponsored espionage targeting high-value research, as well as the risk of financial losses at the hands of cyber criminals.

While the NCSC has been working with the academic sector on an ongoing basis to improve security practices, this is the first threat assessment it has produced specifically for universities.

The assessment notes that while cyber criminals using methods such as phishing attacks and malware pose the most immediate, disruptive threat, the longer-term threat comes from nation states intent on stealing research for strategic gain.

To mitigate the risks, universities are encouraged to adopt security-conscious policies and access controls, as well as to ensure potentially sensitive or high-value research is separated rather than stored in one area.

Measures to support universities have been outlined in Trusted Research, from the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) and the NCSC, which offers accessible and actionable cyber security advice for university leaders, staff and researchers.

Sarah Lyons, Deputy Director for Economy and Society at the National Cyber Security Centre, said:

“The UK’s universities are rightly celebrated for their thriving role in international research and innovation collaborations.

“The NCSC’s assessment helps universities better understand the cyber threats they may face as part of the global and open nature of research and what they can do about it using a Trusted Research approach.

“NCSC is working closely with the academic sector to ensure that, wherever the threat comes from, they are able to protect their research and their universities in cyberspace.”

The assessment found that the open and outward-looking nature of the universities sector, while allowing collaboration across international borders, also eases the task of a cyber attacker.

Among the examples highlighted in the assessment was an attack from last year attributed to Iranian actors in which they were able to steal the credentials of their victims after directing them to fake university websites.

The attack took place across 14 countries, including the UK, and many of the fake pages were linked to university library systems, indicating the actors’ appetite for this type of material.

The assessment also highlights the financial damage which can be caused by cyber attacks on UK universities, citing previous figures from UK Finance which estimated that UK university losses from cyber crime for the first half of 2018 were £145m. 

Universities across the globe fail to learn the importance of cybersecurity

The state of Louisiana recently declaring a state of emergency after three malware attacks on schools and the University of York’s data breach, both highlight the issue of security in the education sector.

New research shows universities suffer over five devastating cyber attacks a semester.

Research by network protection experts, EfficientIP, and IDC found 86% of education sector respondents experienced under the radar Domain Name System (DNS) attacks in the past year, the second-highest across all sectors after government.

The research also revealed:

  • Organisations in the education sector suffered on average of 11 attacks last year, each costing $670,000 – resulting in an annual toll of $7,370,000.
  • 50% of organisations suffered compromised websites, high above the global average of 45% organisations experiencing this.
  • 50% of those surveyed said they currently attempt to mitigate attacks by shutting down servers and services.

EfficientIP, whose technology is used by Manchester Metropolitan University and Leeds Beckett University, surveyed 900 security experts from nine countries across North America, Europe and Asia. The report found the education sector is failing to invest in its own security. 

DNS security veteran Ronan David, VP of Strategy at EfficientIP, knows the devastating impact DNS attacks can have on the education sector. 

Education sector not taking $7,370,000/year cyber threat cost seriously

Universities fail to learn the importance of cybersecurity, suffering over five devastating cyber attacks a semester 

EfficientIP, specialists in DNS security for service continuity, user protection and data confidentiality, revealed the education sector is one of the most heavily targeted industries by cyberattacks in its 2019 Global DNS Threat Report. Research by EfficientIP and IDC found 86% of education sector respondents experienced under the radar Domain Name System (DNS) attacks in the past year, the second-highest across all sectors after government.

Surveying 900 security experts from nine countries across North America, Europe and Asia, the report found the education sector is failing to invest in its own security. Organisations suffered an average of 11 attacks last year, each costing $670,000 – resulting in an annual toll of $7,370,000. 

The research also revealed half of the DNS attacks education institutions experienced last year were phishing-based. These attacks have devastating impacts for education organisations. These can range from in-house application downtime, affecting 66%, to compromised websites: 50%, high above the global average of 45% organisations experiencing this.

If education institutions are going to properly protect themselves and students enrolled, they need smarter countermeasures. 50% of those surveyed said they currently attempt to mitigate attacks by shutting down servers and services, a further 64% shutting down affected processes and connections. Pulling the plug might help stop attacks, but it’s a blunt instrument attempting to stop increasingly sophisticated threats. Smarter DNS monitoring, analysis and threat intelligence are needed to identify these threats before they begin, and quarantine attacks without taking entire servers offline, disrupting normal service.

Education has fallen behind healthcare, retail and other industries with only 22% of education institutions surveyed prioritising monitoring & analyzing DNS traffic to meet the compliance requirements of data regulations such as GDPR. In addition, with the lowest adoption of network security policy management automation, 8%, education is beginning to fall behind in too many key areas to quickly catch up.

David Williamson, CEO of EfficientIP, commented:

“Hackers are always looking for an easy way in, so it is disappointing the education sector is failing to invest in security despite universities and education facilities being a clear priority for hackers. When students and professors trust their institutions with sensitive personal information and intellectual property this paints a big target on universities’ backs and makes them responsible for safeguarding it.

We live in an era of governments declaring a state of emergency and officially involving themselves with cyberattacks on schools. Reaching this point means the education sector’s problems are escalating. Education organisations need to be more proactive, fully embracing DNS security. Otherwise, application downtime and the loss of sensitive and confidential  data will keep damaging their reputations, alienating prospective students.”

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