Cybersecurity Risks In Higher Education

Between 2005 and 2021, there were 1,851 data breaches at institutions of learning, and that number is projected to increase in the years to come. Though they handle so much sensitive data, many universities operate on outdated and vulnerable cybersecurity systems.

The Main Cybersecurity Risks In Higher Education

Discover the most pressing cybersecurity risks for higher education and how they must comply with standards to prevent these dangers.

Phishing Schemes

Hackers trick users into sharing their passwords or personal information in phishing schemes. In educational institutions, hackers may send emails to students posing as university staff or financial aid administrators. These students may unknowingly enter their login credentials or data into sham login pages.

Attacks can also occur on a more personal level. A hostile force may target a specific university staff member or president with confidential information access and study this individual’s behavior and history to customize attacks.

Because phishing attempts are personal and behavior-focused, universities must divert resources to cybersecurity education. These breaches will dramatically decrease when everyone knows the warning signs and when to use caution. The need is even more apparent if students work remotely. The training may begin with basics like differentiating passwords for personal and university accounts.

Ransomware Attacks

Ransomware is another critical risk for higher education institutions. This malicious software will collect data or lock systems until a targeted institution pays a sum to the hackers. Some colleges also conduct sensitive research in various fields that may be at risk.

These ransomware sums can devastate universities if the sum is astronomically high. The compromised data could also halt operations for students and staff. The class loses valuable learning time if a professor cannot access their digital course resources because of an attack.

If the university hasn’t been keeping adequate backups, it may see no choice but to pay the ransom; even if the attackers return the data, the payment proves that the university is a valid target and will likely be the victim of another attack.

A university plagued by ransomware attacks also presents a poor reputation. Therefore, they must invest in up-to-date IT infrastructure and keep an inventory of data like student information and research. It’s then easier to back up this data and create a comprehensive plan for protection and prevention.

SQL Injections

Many colleges have query boxes on their websites for interested students to connect with staff members. Current students can also use these boxes to access IT help or speak with professors. However, a hacker can use SQL injection to manipulate these query boxes and access sensitive data. After entering a malicious code, the hacker can alter, collect or delete data.

Protection against a SQL injection begins with website design. An IT team implements parameterized statements that will not treat the code as executable. They may also update other website infrastructure to seal any additional gaps and vulnerabilities.

Preventing Breaches With Compliance

Compliance is critical to strengthening higher education cybersecurity. The Gramm-Leach Act requires that financial services must ensure the confidentiality of financial aid information for students. This act applies to banks, universities, and trade schools.

Though the act allows institutions to determine their specific approaches, some general protections it requires are:

  • Development and maintenance of specific safeguards and programs
  • Designation of employees who coordinate that security program
  • Frequent and timely updates to the program

Furthermore, the cybersecurity maturity model certification (CMMC) established in 2020 provides guidelines for entities interacting with the Department of Defense. This will include higher education entities that receive funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Science Foundation.

Nearly every U.S. college is affected as CMMC pertains to any system relying on federal funds, and all entities must be compliant by October 2025.

Following Regulations to Meet Cybersecurity Risks in Higher Education

Compliance with these regulations adds credibility to the university and builds trust with current study bodies and interested students. It will also avoid penalties and fines lost for non-compliance. Loss of funds from costly security breaches and ransomware attacks is also less likely.

Requirements may vary depending on the severity of university-backed research or the campus size. Still, general first proactive measures should begin with an analysis of technology and infrastructure:

  • What risk factors exist? How should they be prioritized?
  • Where do gaps in infrastructure arise?
  • Are there any external vendors who must also adhere to these guidelines?

With all factors present, it is that much easier to craft an action plan for complete compliance.

Securing Schools One Step At A Time

Higher education is all about continued growth and progress, and that belief must also extend to cybersecurity processes. Implementing cybersecurity training, updating infrastructure, and complying with new regulations are all critical to the safety of college operations nationwide. Even the smallest improvements are one step toward concrete and impenetrable cybersecurity.

Lavanya Rathnam

Lavanya Rathnam is an experienced technology, finance, and compliance writer. She combines her keen understanding of regulatory frameworks and industry best practices with exemplary writing skills to communicate complex concepts of Governance, Risk, and Compliance (GRC) in clear and accessible language. Lavanya specializes in creating informative and engaging content that educates and empowers readers to make informed decisions. She also works with different companies in the Web 3.0, blockchain, fintech, and EV industries to assess their products’ compliance with evolving regulations and standards.

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