Higher Education Facing Cyberattacks, Can Fight Back, Experts Say

Higher education institutions are facing a surge of cyberattacks in recent years, especially ransomware attacks, and education leaders are focused on detecting and responding to threats while protecting data. A recent MeriTalk survey, in partnership with Dell Technologies, Intel, Microsoft, and VMware, found that 87 percent of higher education IT decision makers say outdated IT leaves their organizations vulnerable to potential cyber threats.

The higher education field stands out as a target in this evolving threat landscape because of the profusion and variety of records that institutions keep, Hernan Londono, chief technology and innovation strategist for education at Dell Technologies, at a recent webinar.

“When you think about these bad actors, they look at higher education, and they say, ‘well, people in higher education collect academic records, and they collect financial records, and they collect medical records … it’s not a coincidence that bad actors target higher education,” he said during the webinar, “IT Modernization That Drives Higher Education Forward.” Cybersecurity, he added is “the number one issue in the minds of IT leaders.”

Kendra Ketchum, vice president for information management and technology at The University of Texas, San Antonio (UTSA), agreed that higher education is especially vulnerable to cyberattacks because academic institutions are “notoriously open, open access, open research, and we had to start shifting the mindset to awareness, protection and educating around preventive measures, educating about the human component.”

More than 90 percent of attacks, Ketchum said, are initiated by email, a link, or malware through a phishing campaign. “Sadly, students are getting phished,” she noted. “They get notes from a make believe professor saying ‘I’m going to send you a check. You’re going to do some research for me.’ They go out and cash it.”

“If you think about it, protecting our patents, protecting our data, is critical,” she added.

Both higher education experts offered a series of tips for how institutions can anticipate attacks and fight back against cyber criminals.

Especially important, Ketchum said, is laying out a data management strategy. “Understand the classifications of your data that you see coming in and out of your organization,” she advised. “How many patents do you have? Do you have the opportunity to understand who’s working in your data center?”

Among her first steps upon arriving on campus, Ketchum said, was setting up a security operations center and staffing it with graduate students in the university’s cybersecurity program. She also recommended that institutions send out regular emails, as UTSA does, with cyber tips on topics such as how to handle suspicious emails.

Additionally, Ketchum advised IT leaders run phishing simulations to see if people on campus will click on such emails. “Run a red team exercise to understand how you would navigate through an incident happening on your campus,” she suggested.

Institutions should bear down on cyber preparations year-round, Ketchum concluded. “Don’t let it get to the last minute of the last hour before Christmas break when everybody leaves and learn the hard way,” she said. “ … Preparation matters.”

Londono emphasized a broad focus on modern infrastructure, with institutions overcoming budget constraints, building backup systems, and taking care of deferred IT maintenance so systems are resilient enough to withstand attacks. If these critical steps are not taken, he said, “the bad guys (will) know they can really be successful.”

For more insight, view the webinar on demand.