Universities ignore cyber threat at their peril

Emerging online threats and tough new penalties for data breaches are forcing universities to take cyber security more seriously than ever, says Kamal Bechkoum

April 14, 2018
Cyber attack

Universities are bombarded on a daily basis with information about cybercrime and security, almost to the point where it feels that little else needs to be done other than trust in the IT department’s skills and get on with life.

But does this mean students and academic staff are safe? Is their research and partner companies’ data really secure? Will an institution’s computers, libraries and facilities function without hiccup thanks to the new wave of encryption, site blocks and alerts that have arrived in recent months?

In a word, no. Universities will never be 100 per cent secure because no one is completely safe when it comes to cyber security.

As Henry Hughes, deputy chief information security officer at Jisc, pointed out at a recent higher education conference: “Half of you are not doing any student training in cyber security.”

Supporting this statement, he added that a Jisc survey of 22,000 students’ satisfaction at the end of their courses found that 82 per cent felt that digital skills were essential to their future careers, but less than half of the group felt that they were well prepared for the digital workplace.

This matters because we can all be victims (or at least targets) and cyber security cannot, and should not, be delegated. While you are busy thinking “it’s not going to be me, I’m not important”, that is when you leave yourself vulnerable.

IT security is not a new challenge for universities but with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation – or a post-Brexit version after 2020 – coming in, it is expected that universities will become more liable for data breaches, with fines of up to 2 per cent of overall revenue or €10 million, whichever is higher.

In 2016, the UK government set out plans to commit £1.8 billion to the National Cyber Security Strategy, working with organisations from the private sector, public agencies and academia to create a national Cyber Security Centre, a Cyber Innovation Centre, and an Institute of Coding.

The University of Gloucestershire is leading discussions with a select group of universities and businesses to discuss the shape and form of this national project. The university is also now one of 17 universities helping its graduates to develop skills in writing safe and secure software, as part of the newly set up Institute of Coding.

This project has acquired greater importance thanks to a new phenomenon known as the “internet of things”. This shorthand describes the online interconnection of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, ranging from phones and fridges to home thermostats and power stations. Within two years it is estimated that about 26 billion devices will be connected to the internet. Cyber attacks will have the potential to damage not just our laptops and work computers, but dozens of electrical items in our homes.

As such, university staff and students need to get into good “cyber hygiene” habits. Campus visitors bring laptops and mobile phones with them, while academics frequently connect with organisations from around the world. We need to limit the number of people with administrator privileges and be wary of disgruntled insiders.

Training and education must be continuous because cyber security is a process, not an event. It has to be part of a university’s ongoing risk assessment. We all should think of ourselves as human firewalls within our organisations.

It is vital to make sure that systems are updated regularly and understand that security is a continuous process. Share good practice – your neighbour could be the weak link so help them – and have a plan for when it all goes wrong.

Kamal Bechkoum is head of business and technology at the University of Gloucestershire.

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