Open Communication and Collaboration Make Campus Networks Vulnerable to Cyberattack
By Scott Sweeney, Esq. and Elayna M. Fiene, Esq. of Wilson Elser
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 universityaEUR(TM)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.
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 individualsaEUR(TM) 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 universityaEUR(TM)s research is often part of its trade secrets that can be licensed for millions of dollars. The threat to a companyaEUR(TM)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 attackeraEUR(TM)s intent.