Institutions of higher education face growing threats from cyber attackers. Instances of attacks on universities are increasing, with recent large-scale attacks at some of the country's top universities. Approximately one third of all security breaches take place in higher education; only the health care sector has been breached more often.

A university’s computer network is an especially attractive target for hackers because of the sheer volume and range of information stored on it. Moreover, the nature of a higher education institution makes it particularly vulnerable to attacks. Designed to facilitate open communication and collaboration, a campus network is open to thousands of users who have access to a vast amount of personal data, financial records and ongoing academic research with limited barriers. Universities struggle to secure their networks from outside threats while maintaining the level of openness expected by students, staff and faculty.

Personal Information

A university network is used to store a broad array of information. Universities collect the personally identifiable information of students, faculty, employees and alumni; this information can include individuals’ social security numbers, addresses, family information (including financial information submitted with requests for financial aid), health data, student transcripts and application information. Universities maintain various financial records beyond those related to tuition payments. A university typically has an endowment to invest, an operating budget to manage and salaries to pay. Tuition is paid by students (and their parents), making the credit card and banking information of thousands of people part of the campus network. Universities typically keep detailed records of alumni donations, which could assist attackers in inferring information about the finances of alumni.

Personal and financial information is just the beginning, however. Universities usually have a student health center that treats students and collects sensitive health information in the process. Many institutions also have campus police departments that maintain records of interactions with students. Health and disciplinary information about students is inherently sensitive information that can lead to reputational damage if exposed.

Health records are subject to Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) rules and student records are protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Accordingly, institutions are likely to have taken at least some enhanced security measures to protect these records, making them somewhat less vulnerable to hackers though not necessarily fully secure. In fact, most attacks have involved this kind of information.

Threats to Research Data

University networks also contain academic research central to their mission as an educational institution. This research can be highly sensitive, especially when funded by government grants and related to matters of national security. A university’s research is often part of its trade secrets that can be licensed for millions of dollars. The threat to a company’s intellectual property is often thought to be one of the highest risks faced by an entity in securing its network. However, even when research is not related to classified matters, a cyberattack can be extremely damaging. Hackers may attempt to manipulate the data to support a certain conclusion to affect public opinion or direct subsequent research.

Research is inherently harder to protect because of the decentralized nature of it. Faculty members conducting research belong to many different departments and schools within the university that may have different security systems and protocols. But perhaps more significantly, this kind of information is designed to be shared widely to encourage collaboration that furthers academic goals. Balancing the academic purpose of an institution with the need to protect certain information is a challenge that gets at the fundamental function of a university.

Structural, Technological and Cultural Challenges

Finding that balance is not the only reason that institutions of higher education have difficulty protecting against cyberattacks. The characteristics of a university present significant challenges in combating cyberattacks and enhancing security across the entire network. For example, an institution of higher education may consist of several different departments or schools that each has its own IT department. These IT departments may or may not be working closely with a central IT authority on security matters.

The structural challenges are compounded by technological and cultural difficulties facing a university. From a technological standpoint, almost every user of a campus network brings a device, if not multiple devices, to connect to the network. These devices do not necessarily meet minimum hardware or software standards, have probably not been registered with a central IT department, and cannot be easily erased and re-imaged if infected. Compliance mandates can differ between network segments within the same institution. Once an attacker obtains login credentials for the network, the unwanted device cannot be removed from the network. Further, many institutions do not have meaningful cyber threat intelligence to detect the attacker that might be present on the network, much less derive the attacker’s intent.

Cultural challenges also inhibit a university’s ability to prevent, timely detect and promptly respond to a cyberattack. As noted above, universities are deeply reluctant to impede communications or research. Departments may be competing for the same resources and reluctant to admit to any vulnerability or coordinate a response. Financial constraints are also a factor; a university may be unable to find the resources to provide adequate security, or even to hire the necessary experts to work on detecting and responding to attacks.

The Motivation Factor

While attackers can be found on almost all networks, they have a wide variety of motives. Financial and personal data can be used for identity theft or sold by the attackers to others. Other attackers may hijack the network to use the IT resources for other activities, such as hosting pornography, or simply to embarrass the school. Corporate spies target research institutions to obtain research and development sponsored by companies. Similarly, “hacktivists” might seek research or data in areas such as climate change or defense, using or manipulating it to further their own purposes. This can take the form of destroying data, altering it to support an agenda or publicizing it. Foreign governments also may sponsor attacks in attempts to obtain access to certain research.

Ascertaining the attacker’s intent is important because it affects the institution’s response. A cybercriminal may be focused on obtaining personal data, in which case an immediate response is necessary. However, a state-sponsored advanced persistent threat group may not use data immediately, but rather linger on the network over a significant period of time to gain more meaningful long-term access to the data. Any response to this kind of threat requires thorough investigation and the involvement of the government.

Response to Cyber Threats

There are a variety of ways in which educational institutions can respond to cyber threats.

  • Monitoring who is accessing the network – and from where – can alert the institution to irregularities in login credentials and indicate that something is wrong. For example, if login credentials are used to access the network from two different places within a short time frame, there should be an alert.
  • In addition, universities can take steps to segment information by category and limit access to various categories. For example, admissions and financial data can be segmented from research. This would allow certain research to remain accessible by the wider campus community.
  • Education about advanced persistent threat groups throughout the institution can increase awareness among the network’s users and enhance each user’s vigilance about the security of their devices.
  • Collaboration among institutions of higher education on these issues can provide extra intelligence on cyber threats and development of best practices to handle attacks.

Collaboration and coordination across the university – and between institutions – is essential in preventing and responding to the growing cybersecurity threat universities are facing. To protect the broad range of data stored on campus networks, schools must first recognize the nature of the threat. Developing a cohesive and integrated plan to address the various cybersecurity threats is a necessary step in minimizing these attacks and their consequences. Finally, it is critical to have a plan in place as to how to respond to an attack or breach should one occur.