Caught in the cross-hairs

Ethical hackers can storm through the defences of educational institutions and seize their high-value data within a matter of a mere two hours

Never have education institutions been more at risk from attacks on their most precious data. According to the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI)) and the education sector's technology not-for-profit, Jisc, there is a 100% track record of gaining access to higher education institutions' high-value data within two hours under penetration testing (ethical hacking).

In the two organisations jointly published paper, 'How safe is your data? Cyber security in higher education', it is revealed that, during 2018 alone, more than 1,000 Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks were detected at 241 UK education and research institutions.

The paper highlights areas of concern, pinpoints the sources of cyber attacks and proposes specific actions that universities should take to tackle the issue, including the adoption of a new British Standard on cyber risk and resilience.

"Cyber attacks are becoming more sophisticated and prevalent, and universities can't afford to stand still in the face of this constantly evolving threat," cautions Dr John Chapman, head of Jisc's Security Operations Centre and the author of the report. "While the majority of higher education providers take this problem seriously, we are not confident that all UK universities are equipped with adequate cyber-security knowledge, skills and investment. To avert a potentially disastrous data breach, or network outage, it is critical that all university leaders know what action to take to build robust defences."

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, points to the root of the problem: "Universities hold masses of data on sensitive research, on the inventions of the future and on their staff and students, but some of it is not properly secured. The two main functions of universities are to teach and to research. Students like having their personal data used to improve teaching and learning. But this support is conditional and is unlikely to survive a really serious data breach. Meanwhile, future UK economic growth is highly dependent on university research. This provides valuable information that a few unscrupulous foreign governments are keen to access."

"Despite the challenges, cyber security is an area where we know how to make a difference, especially when there is leadership from the top, Hillman adds. "University managers and governors need to address cyber-security issues, including through the new British Standard on Cyber risk and resilience. Meanwhile, regulators need to consider imposing minimum cyber-security and network requirements to keep students and staff safe."

Professor David Maguire, chair of Jisc and vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich, adds: "Universities are absolutely reliant on connectivity to conduct almost all their functions, from administration and finance to teaching and research. These activities accrue huge amount of data; this places a burden of responsibility on institutions, which must ensure the safety of online systems and the data held within them. Developing strong cyber-security policies is vital not only to protect data, but also to preserve the reputation of our university sector. The HEPI/Jisc paper will help to draw higher education leaders' attention to this important aspect of their work."