Why Universities Need Better Cybersecurity

The education sector is a prime target for cybercriminals, yet often overlooked in the cybersecurity conversation. 

With a wealth of research available and large networks full of vulnerabilities, it’s never been easier for international hackers to gain access and compromise critical information. In this article, we look at the biggest reasons why universities and higher education in general desperately need improved cybersecurity strategies to combat the ever-growing threat of data breaches. 

Prime Targets

Higher education connects hundreds of thousands of users across vast networks of academic research, personal information, and educational materials. Well beyond the valuable personal information alone, university systems contain extensive proprietary information and cutting-edge research across diverse industries.  

Such critical information is especially invaluable to international hackers. 

These hackers collect this data for their own country’s benefit while relying on its sensitive nature to extort money or other resources in ransomware scams. 

In March 2018, The Department of Justice indicted nine Iranians on counts of phishing. They were charged with using stolen account credentials to steal research, academic journals, theses, dissertations, electronic books and more. The estimated value of the stolen materials was $3.4 billion. This staggering number puts in perspective how valuable this information truly is. 

Poor Cyber Defenses  

The higher education ecosystem is a perfect storm of desirable data and cyber crime opportunities with hundreds of thousands of users across countless platforms. Balancing ease of access for legitimate users, an effective information-sharing network, educational regulations, and effective cybersecurity is difficult. As networks and systems get larger, the ability to consistently protect all vulnerabilities diminishes, creating opportunities for hackers and compromising more information each time. 

As educational institutions turn to distance learning and virtual classrooms, vulnerabilities exponentially increase. 

On top of vulnerable networks, many universities and colleges just simply don’t prioritize cybersecurity as they should. According to the 2020 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report, “Educational Services performed poorly in terms of reporting phishing attacks, thus losing critical response time for the victim organizations.”

College students by themselves don’t have the skillset to manage their own personal information, much less that of the large organization they’re connected to through cell phones, smart watches, and other IoT devices. Combining user inexperience with that much desirable data and those vulnerabilities is a recipe for disaster. 

Far-Reaching Consequences

Thefts of proprietary information and protected research can bankrupt organizations and industries. This is equally true for educational institutions, who rely on research data for grants and funding, scientific developments, community partnerships, and other critical financial factors. In addition, one bad cyber breach can irreversibly damage an organization’s reputation, creating a public relations challenge and affecting enrollment for years to come. 

These cyber crimes undermine the ability to use this protected information for the benefit of American education, students, scientists, and greater society.  

Higher education must improve its cybersecurity posture to protect institutions’ information, futures, and impacts on surrounding communities. Maintaining a proactive IT cybersecurity presence with safeguards like strong password requirements and encrypted email not only protects the vast network of research data, but also puts young adults in the habit of protecting their information early, preparing them for the future.

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