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The State of Cybersecurity in Higher Education

The higher education space faces many problems today, top among them being cybersecurity threats. Institutions of higher learning have not been spared from the cyberattacks that are rampaging every industry today. According to The New York Times, the situation has been so bad that a typical research University in the United States has had to fend off as many as 20 million malicious attacks every day.

A recent study on the state of cybersecurity in the Education industry revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation. It was a time when the gaping weaknesses in the cybersecurity measures institutions of higher learning were laid bare. The Education Cybersecurity Threat Index shows that colleges and universities have faced new cybersecurity threats that forced them to find ways to address them fast.

This post will dig deeper to find the most prevalent cybersecurity threats the education industry faced and the ideal solutions they need to face current and future threats.

Institutions of Higher Education Suffer Malware Attacks

Some of the most catastrophic malware attacks in history were pulled off in 2020, at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic. The most notable are the Toll Group and University of California NetWalker attacks and the WastedLocker ransomware that took Garmin offline. Of course, the notable German University Hospital Dusseldorf ransomware attack resulting in the first reported casualty from a cyberattack must be mentioned.

Many institutions in the education sector fell prey to successful ransomware attacks. In most cases, the malware encrypted critical institution data, making it inaccessible and disabling services. They then demanded a ransom paid in cryptocurrency before the files were unlocked and systems released.

Around the globe, cybercriminals discovered the value of data education and healthcare institutions held and chose the worst times to attack. A poll of over 100 education institutions in the UK showed that as many as 40 suffered some kind of malware attacks between 2015 and 2020. None could officially admit to paying off the attackers, but 43 could not deny considering it at some point.

A well-known successful attack that made headlines was the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) attack that forced them to pay a ransom of $1.14 million in Bitcoin to recover important medicine research data.

Students and Faculties of Higher Education Know Little About Cyber Threats

The spate of online attacks targeting institutions of higher learning revealed that both the learners and institutions are not well informed on cyberthreats. The institutions were so easy to target because they have never really been prime targets for cybercriminals before. Institutions that had never suffered cyberattacks invested very little in learning about the threats that abound and the solutions to fight them.

The case of the Monroe College System attack is a tale of an institution hit with a simple bug that threatened the basic existence of the institution. A ransomware attack in July 2020 on the New York City-based college shut down almost the entire computer and communication systems. Student, staff, and faculty data was inaccessible. The institution’s learning management platform was disabled, and the institution’s website and emails were inaccessible. The criminals demanded $2 million in Bitcoin, and the college ultimately had to pay after weeks of negotiations.

Protecting Institutions with Low Tolerance for Downtime

Ransomware has been a perfect and potent weapon for cybercriminals targeting institutions of higher education. The reason is simple: educational institutions can tolerate minimal downtime. Therefore, by literally holding their data hostage, criminals can extort the institutions slowly and sometimes even more than once.

The amount of information a typical college or university holds is priceless. The prevalence of ransomware attacks coincided with a time when educational institutions were transitioning to new online-based education and necessary reliance on cloud services. In the middle of the rushed transition, many institutions did not invest enough time and resources to educate their students and staff on the most common phishing methods that attackers used to deploy ransomware.

Research by Risk Management Magazine found that ransomware attacks could have been less damaging to educational institutions if more educators could identify a phishing email or use a password manager. Perhaps the fraction of students and educators that appreciate the dangers posed by online threats to entire systems and data is greater now than it was at this time last year.

Practical Cybersecurity Solutions for Educational Institutions

Colleges and universities are still among the institutions that are least prepared to fend off cyberattacks. The main reason for this is that many of these institutions are reliant on public funding. These institutions cannot afford the latest security solutions to secure and back up their data adequately. Even private institutions with the budget to protect their data fell for ransomware attacks because the human element – the staff and students – were not considered as potential weak points.

Educational institutions that run massive student-faculty networks need the same level of security as a multi-national company with hundreds of employees. Cybersecurity service providers can now personalize the right security solutions to protect the network users’ needs. For instance, most universities and colleges need cybersecurity services that protect students and staff from a range of threats, including social media scams, phishing emails, and identity theft, not just ransomware.

Luckily, the cybersecurity industry has been quick to respond and aid the education industry in 2020. Managed IT service providers today offer affordable tailor-made cybersecurity solutions for institutions of higher education and even hospitals. A perfect example is the cybersecurity solution offered by WPG Consulting.

WPG Consulting is a leading managed services provider, offers a packaged cybersecurity product that includes professional guidance for students and staff. They also offer continuous system monitoring and comprehensive technical support for all college or university IT systems.

Conclusion

Educations of higher learning often create and store invaluable knowledge in delicate but vulnerable computing systems. Cybercriminals know this and view unsecured data as low-hanging fruits they can get a hold of to make quick money.

As institutions strive to educate the students and staff to protect themselves and the institution, the cybersecurity industry is developing appropriate solutions to make it easy on them. Looking to discover some of the most effective cybersecurity solutions for institutions of higher education? Contact WPG Consulting today to get all your questions answered.

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Written by Hitesh Patel posted on May 13, 2021