College Data Breaches Underscore Security Challenges

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, 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 Application Security, 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 caused 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 noted.

"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 Company.

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 well.

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," Pescatore added.

"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."