Emerging Issues in Cyber Security for Higher Education Institutions

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On average, a cyber attack occurs every 39 seconds. This means that every device connected to the Internet is a potential target at every given time, including higher education institutions as well.

In order to create a safe learning environment, higher education institutions must make viable efforts into creating a strong, impenetrable cyber security posture. Otherwise, they face putting their reputation and the integrity of their students and staff on the line. Organized crime, insider threats, cyber fraud - these are just some of the threats higher education institutions deal with.

Read on and find out what are the main cyber security challenges higher education institutions are facing, and what are the appropriate solutions to nullify malicious threats.

Why are higher education institutions a target for cyber attacks?

Institutions of higher education are getting more and more digitized:

  • Students are learning mainly in a digital format
  • Faculty staff and visitors are sharing all their information online
  • Various faculty functions are being carried out using the Internet.

Taking all of this into account, it comes as no surprise that colleges and universities are often targets for malicious cyber attacks.

Even though each malicious attacker has different motives for targeting specific organizations, when it comes to universities and other higher education institutions, the motives are obvious:

  • Student information: Colleges and universities hold sensitive data regarding a student’s education, personal information, family, contact information, etc.
  • Banking information: Parent and student financial information are disclosed with colleges and universities in order to ensure smooth transactions of student loans and other financial transactions.
  • Proprietary university information: Many top universities work closely with government agencies, tech companies, and other institutions to study state-of-the-art subjects. This means they’re often safeguarding valuable, proprietary information.

While it’s understandable why universities keep high volumes of sensitive information, it’s also clear why malicious actors would choose institutions of higher education as their main targets. All of this underlines the necessity for universities and colleges to seriously consider investing in strong cyber security infrastructure.

How often do colleges and universities get attacked?

The fact that higher education institutions are lucrative targets is not a novelty. In fact, one study claims that higher education institutions had the highest rate of ransomware attacks in 2016.

In 2019 alone, some highly notable data breaches occurred:

  • Australian National University: Two-decades-old personal and payroll details breached, affecting around 200,000 people.
  • University of Greenwich: Data breach compromising over sensitive information of 19.500 students. The university had to pay a fine of $160.000 as per the Data Protection Act of 1998.
  • Washington State University: Malware attack breaching Social Security numbers and health data impacting over 4.5 million people.
  • Oregon State University: Phishing scam exposing personally identifiable information of 636 students and their families.
  • University of Connecticut: Personal data of 326,000 people compromised after a hacker accessed an employee’s email, which contained names, addresses, social security numbers, etc.

These are just some of the most notable examples of sophisticated cyber attacks that caught universities unprepared, and the price for that unpreparedness, as you can see, is brutal. This should serve as a wake-up call for universities to stay one step ahead of hackers in order to avoid ruining their reputation, paying out hefty lawsuits, and causing real damage to the lives of students.

What are some of the biggest cyber threats to universities and colleges?

Some of the most prevalent threats higher education institutions are facing are:

  • Phishing
  • Malware
  • DoS (Denial of Service)
  • Insider Threats
  • Ransomware

The risk of malicious actors accessing confidential data is imminent. CISOs (Chief Information Security Officers) are well aware of the threats posed by malicious actors, which is why it is of the highest concern that they work closely with SOC teams and the IT department to keep cyber attackers at bay and protect the integrity of higher education institutions.

Even though some types of cyber attacks are more prominent than others, universities and colleges should be prepared for any type of cyber danger that may come their way.

How can universities and colleges prepare for threats?

To make their students feel safe, universities and colleges must devise a foolproof plan in order to maintain the safety of confidential information. This can be done by putting extra effort into creating a strong SOC team which is both strategically and technically supported. Some of the best tactics to use in order to detect, prevent, and successfully mitigate cyber threats include:

  • Monitor networks meticulously: SOC teams should regularly perform vulnerability scans to ensure that every potential risk is assessed in a timely, preemptive manner.
  • Implement encryption: Implementing safety measures, such as log-in two-step verification methods and encrypting personally identifiable information and other sensitive data is a crucial aspect of preventing data breaches.
  • Form a collaborative SOC team: Hire skilled professionals within the cyber security industry whose cyber security expertise trumps that of emerging malicious threats. This may include building an expansive network consisting of a CISO, analysts, engineers, emergency management staff, IT personnel, threat hunting department, etc.
  • Sophisticated technologies: Understaffed and poorly equipped SOC teams have trouble dealing with sophisticated cyber threats. Reinforcing your cyber security platform with state-of-the-art technologies that are specifically designed to battle evolving threats, like SOAR, is monumental.

Each university creates a different strategy to prepare for cyber attacks depending on the amount of sensitive data they contain, the number of students they have, the size of their SOC team, and the technology at their disposal.

In this regard, each individual institution must make strategic efforts that align with their circumstances and implement top technologies and highly-skilled resources in order to successfully eliminate potential cyber threats.

Implementing technologies like SOAR will add much-needed visibility in places where security professionals can’t access individually and improve the overall effectiveness and communication of the SOC team. Some universities get thousands of alerts on a daily basis, and without the implementation of proper technologies that match the sophistication of evolving cyber threats, the risk of falling victim to cyber attacks will be much bigger.

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