Cyberattacks on the rise in higher education

September 27, 2013

Matt Zalaznick

The lone-wolf hacker creating nuisance viruses in a basement has been replaced by sophisticated foreign governments and organized crime rings as the top cybersecurity threat to colleges and universities.

Today’s hackers are now being deployed around the clock to steal intellectual property, sensitive research, and personal information, potentially costing colleges and universities millions of dollars and badly damaging their reputations.

“The landscape of who the attackers are has changed significantly,” says Mark Nardone, director of IT security for Northeastern University in Massachusetts. “We’re not in the ’80s, where it’s hobbyists coming after systems for a kind of self-gratification or bragging rights. Now we have people coming after resources that have tangible financial worth attached to them.”

Among the higher education cyberattacks that have occurred recently are crime rings stealing vast amounts of credit card numbers; governments of China, Russia, and elsewhere trying to infiltrate nuclear research databases; and students hacking the registrar’s office to change grades.

Higher education is particularly vulnerable because—in contrast to hacking targets like banks—college and university computer networks have historically been as open and inviting as their campuses, says Fred Cate, director of the Indiana University Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research.

“We want our faculty and our students and our public and our donors to connect pretty easily to us,” says Cate, also a professor who teaches courses on information privacy and communications law.

But serving as a “cyberguardian” for those groups and the institution itself is also a logical goal. Here’s why cybersecurity should be top-of-mind for officials—and what kinds of protections can be put in place.