Security pros are talking about the challenges educational institutions face when it comes to protecting user data.
The University of Virginia reportedly fell victim to a cyber-attack the week
of Aug. 23 that resulted in the theft of nearly $1 million. Unfortunately for
administrators at colleges and universities, their institutions are just as
vulnerable to data breaches as enterprises.
According to KrebsOnSecurity.com, attackers used malware to steal
online banking credentials
for accounts belonging to the University
of Virginia's College at Wise and
transferred $996,000 overseas. Also in August, student data from six colleges
in Florida was reportedly exposed
after a software upgrade.
According to a new report from
these problems are all too familiar for higher education
institutions. Between 2008 and Aug. 1, 2010, there were about 160 data breaches at
higher educational institutions. Many of these, Application Security said, were
by problems such as improper access controls, inadequate data security
measures, and a lack of common sense and best practices for database security.
To read more about the big data
breaches of 2010, click here.
"Higher educational institutions have many factors that make security a
bit more difficult than [in] the commercial sector, although they do also face
some of the same threats, such as SQL injections on public-facing Websites and
unencrypted data on lost laptops or portable hard drives," said Alex
Rothacker, manager of Application Security's Team Shatter.
Part of the challenge is budgeting, multiple analysts and security pros
"Higher ed institutions have not had the same level of regulatory
compliance pressure as other organizations such as banks, insurers and utility
companies, so they've chosen to focus on other areas," said Phil Neray,
vice president of security strategy of Guardium, an IBM
Underscoring this point, Application Security cited a report entitled
2010 Security Spending Trends from Enterprise Strategy Group that found
that only 50 percent of U.S.
universities plan to increase their IT security spending in 2010
Downsizing can increase the number of disgruntled former employees, Application
Security pointed out, and many colleges are relying on legacy equipment as
There are also cultural factors. The nature of higher education is to foster
an open academic environment, which can be at odds with the need to protect
sensitive information, Application Security noted.
"Changing this nature requires a philosophical shift in the way these
institutions view sensitive data," the report said. "Students and professors
frequently log in and out of both personal and public computers. Accounts are
left open, computers are left logged on, passwords are written down and data
can be easily lost amid the day-to-day shuffle."
Colleges have long been dealing with problems such as users bringing in
their own computers that are just now becoming common among businesses, noted
Gartner analyst John Pescatore. The same was true 15 years ago of the Internet,
with universities using it long before private industry, he said.
"That said, if I measure a security standpoint by how often sensitive
data is exposed and how often malware penetrates, universities are definitely
less secure, much less secure, than the typical larger enterprise,"
"There has been progress...some high-profile [Social Security number] and
credit card data disclosures enabled college CISOs to actually put in firewalls
and [data leak prevention] and the like," he noted. "So, colleges are
catching up, but they still have huge challenges. Universities have by far been
the biggest deployers of [network access control] to deal with the students
bringing in their own PCs, and now industry is seeing the same thing as part of
the consumerization trend. That's an area [universities] are very good at. However,
they still have weaknesses in protecting information-again, the culture is all
about sharing and publishing, not protecting."