Breaches Double at UK Unis as State Spies Circle

Breaches Double at UK Unis as State Spies Circle

Data breaches at UK universities have doubled over the past two years, leading to the theft of valuable information by foreign governments, according to a new Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

Although it isn’t clear how many universities were contacted by or responded to the request from The Times, breaches reached 1,152 in 2016-17.

This included 515 incidents of unauthorized access to systems at the University of Oxford and 57 successful attacks on University College London (UCL).

As is the case with many organizations holding highly prized data on customers or IP/trade secrets, the scale of the threat from cyberspace is staggering.

Queen Mary, University of London, told the paper it had blocked nearly 39 million attacks over the period, while an unnamed institution claimed to be on the receiving end of 1,000-10,000 attack attempts each month.

Nation state-sponsored hackers were blamed by unnamed university staff for many of the attacks, with most attempted cyber-raids on one institution traced to China, Russia and the Far East.

It appears as if the hackers are looking for cutting-edge research in science, engineering and medical fields; including info on so-called “stealth fabric” used to disguise military weapons, and data on new fuels and batteries.

Experts argued that the UK’s universities need to urgently upgrade their cybersecurity defenses. 

“Universities need to be vigilant and practice good cybersecurity hygiene: security updates should be installed as soon as they are available as attacks delivered via phishing campaigns can specifically target out-of-date systems or unpatched software,” explained Duo Security EMEA VP, Henry Seddon.

“Education is vital, so keep staff and students updated on the risks that phishing can pose – advising them not to click on any links or attachments that look suspicious.”

Anton Grashion, managing director of the security practice at Cylance, added that the historically open connectivity policies espoused by universities are coming back to bite them.

“It is no surprise that universities are suffering from an increase in security breaches, even with segregation of faculty and research networks. Their network environments are some of the most challenging networks to manage, with usually smaller security and staffing budgets,” he explained.

"Cybercrime follows the usual criminal triumvirate of ‘Means, Motive and Opportunity’. Means and Motive are not difficult to discern or obtain to those engaged in this type of activity, and students and faculty at universities provide a tempting and easily accessible opportunity.”

Source: Information Security Magazine