Top 5 Cybersecurity Threats Facing Higher Education

Cybersecurity is a massive concern for colleges and universities, particularly in a post-pandemic world. Even before the pandemic hit, institutions of higher education already collected massive amounts of data from students and faculty. This has been heightened now that many universities are offering hybrid or fully remote curriculums. 

Because colleges and universities store such massive amounts of data, they are often a target of hackers and other cyber criminals. Cyber attack statistics reflect this. In fact, there were 1,851 data breaches in educational institutions between 2005 and 2021.  Additionally, many universities have outdated or poorly constructed cybersecurity systems, which makes them even more vulnerable. 

With so many cybersecurity threats looming, institutions of higher learning will need to take steps to prevent them. Understanding the types of security threats that are most relevant to colleges and universities can help you develop an effective cybersecurity strategy. In this article, we’ll take a look at the top five cybersecurity threats facing universities today and how to address them. 

1. Phishing

Phishing is a very common problem for colleges and universities. In a phishing attack, the hacker will pose as a trusted entity and exploit that trust to trick the user into providing sensitive information like passwords or even social security numbers. Phishing typically happens through email or social media messaging. 

There are a few ways that hackers typically choose to target colleges and universities via phishing. The first is by posing as the college in order to gain access to student or faculty login information. The hacker can then use this information to access the university’s digital systems and uncover many different types of valuable data. 

Another strategy is to target university presidents or specific faculty members. These people may have access to specific pieces of data that hackers want, or they may simply be high-net-worth individuals. The hacker will study the target individual’s behavior to find the most effective way to gain their trust. This strategy is often referred to as “spear phishing” or “whaling”. 

Phishing scams are one of the most effective types of cyber attacks because they can be very difficult to identify and block. Educating your students and staff on how to recognize phishing messages can be incredibly effective at preventing successful attacks. This is particularly important because many students and faculty use their own electronic devices on campus, which may not have adequate security protection. 

Using two-factor authentication can also be very effective at preventing phishing attacks. With two-factor authentication, students and faculty will need to enter a code sent to their email or phone number in addition to their password in order to log in to the university’s system. Apps like Google Authenticator make it relatively easy to implement this security measure.

2. Ransomware

Ransomware is another major challenge facing colleges and universities today. Ransomware is a type of malicious software that locates valuable data on a target system and holds it for a ransom sum. Colleges and universities hold a large amount of valuable student data, and they also conduct valuable high-level research, which is why so many hackers use ransomware to target them. 

A ransomware attack can have devastating consequences for any university. Ransom sums for these attacks can be extremely high and are often financially devastating. Additionally, these attacks compromise valuable data and can even shut down your systems for an extended period of time, making it very difficult to conduct normal operations. On top of that, ransomware can negatively affect a university’s reputation for years to come. 

To prevent ransomware, universities should have a robust firewall in place throughout the entire system and keep it updated. Additionally, making regular backups of your most important data can lessen the impact of a ransomware attack if it does happen. Working with a trustworthy IT provider can help you stay on top of your cybersecurity maintenance and prevent ransomware attacks. 

3. SQL Injections

Many hackers use SQL injections when attacking higher learning institutions. In an SQL injection, the hacker will enter a piece of malicious code into a query box on your website. The most common query boxes are login pages and contact forms, but there are many others. The malicious code enables the hacker to access protected data. They can even alter this data by adding new information or deleting it altogether. 

Colleges and universities are often particularly vulnerable to SQL injections because of the number of query boxes on their website. There are ways to prevent SQL injections when designing your website by using parameterized statements. Working with an IT company through the web design process and updating your website to address these security threats can make a huge difference. 

4. Data Breaches

There are many other types of data breaches that colleges and universities are vulnerable to. For example, there are many different types of malware that hackers have used over the years. As technology evolves, cybercriminals have gotten increasingly sophisticated and developed new strategies to gain access to valuable pieces of data. Human error can also increase the chances of a data breach. 

5. Outdated Technology

Many universities use outdated technology, which puts them even more at risk for cyber attacks. Missing even one software update can make your organization more vulnerable. Educational technology is constantly evolving, and universities should regularly assess the devices and programs they are using to ensure they are still safe. Additionally, it’s very important to schedule time for regular software updates. While upgrading to the latest technology can be pricey, think of it as an investment in the safety of your organization, your staff, and your students. 

Cybersecurity risks are present for any institution of higher learning, regardless of the size of your organization or where you’re located. If you don’t already have some form of cybersecurity protection in place, now is the time to invest in this important service. This could mean hiring an in-house IT team for your university, or outsourcing to a managed services provider. 

Ashley Lukehart  has been writing about the impact of technology and IT security on businesses since starting Parachute in 2005.