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Cybercriminals Don’t Go on Spring Break

Posted January 30, 2018

Pencils down: it’s spring break. Your students, faculty, and staff are likely hitting the beach and taking some well-deserved time off from the rigors of academia. Cybercriminals, on the other hand, still have their noses to the grindstone. They’re working hard to infiltrate your campus. Are you working hard to stop them?

While your students might say “What happened on spring break stays on spring break,” that won’t (and can’t) be your motto if your campus and its information are targeted by cybercriminals. Your institution owns and controls massive quantities of data, including proprietary academic or scientific research, payment information, medical records, and the personally identifiable information of your faculty, staff, students, research subjects, and others. The steps you’re taking (or, more importantly, not taking) to secure and protect this data are critical to maintaining trust and avoiding costly penalties.

While your students might say “What happened on spring break stays on spring break,” that won’t (and can’t) be your motto if your campus and its information are targeted by cybercriminals.

Information Security is the number one issue within higher education IT this year, according to a 2018 report from EDUCAUSE. (This is also the third year in a row that Information Security has ranked #1.) Knowing this, it may be wise to use some of the free time afforded to you by spring break to think about your cybersecurity program and its effectiveness. Is there room for improvement? Here are some ways to graduate your cybersecurity initiatives to the next level:

Be proactive, not reactive.

You’ve probably seen media coverage about big corporations that have been hacked or breached, but the business sector isn’t the only one targeted by cybercriminals. Higher education is also an appealing and often profitable mark for ransomware, phishing, and other cyberattacks. Unfortunately, far too many cybersecurity policies in higher education boil down to closing the door after the horse has already left the barn. The data has been compromised or stolen. The damage is done. When it comes to preparing for these attacks in advance, countless institutions of higher education receive a failing grade.

In today’s digital environment, it’s not if you’ll be attacked – it’s when. Mitigating risk upfront before you experience a cyberattack limits the possible damage and also helps you learn about existing threats to keep an eye on for the future. Introducing complex deterrents makes your institution a less attractive target as the adage “time is money” applies to cybercriminals, too. A robust cybersecurity program may not stop cyberattacks completely, but it will slow attackers down and make them think twice about whether it is worth their time to target your institution.

Conduct a risk assessment.

When it comes to your cybersecurity program, ask yourself three questions: Are you doing the right things? Are you doing enough of the right things? Are you doing them in the right order? Spending a ton of money on the latest technology doesn’t necessarily mean that you are protected. By conducting a risk assessment, you will be able to determine if your cybersecurity investments will protect your institution (and your job), prove the ROI of your investments, and ensure that the money you spend targets the most critical areas first instead of the low-hanging fruit that may address only menial risks. Risk assessments differ from organization to organization, but in general, they will all identify, prioritize, and measure your cybersecurity risk. (Need help “doing your homework”? Learn more about risk assessments.)

Address the human element.

Your faculty is brilliant. Your students are the minds of the future. Your staff is trustworthy. And yet, it’s likely that a hack or other cybersecurity incident will be traced back to one of them. Securing your technology is one thing, but a critical piece of cybersecurity has to do with educating your campus population on policies and procedures that should guide their behaviors. (Pop quiz: how many members of your faculty and staff actually know that you have policies in the first place?) Anyone that works or lives on a higher education campus knows that they are hubs of activity. Whether it’s people rushing from building to building or trying to cram “just one more thing” onto their schedule, it’s obvious that the one thing people don’t have is time. Unfortunately, this hustle and bustle too often leads to mistakes – and when it comes to cybersecurity, these mistakes can be costly.

You can address these “human element” errors by developing and implementing an Awareness program that educates your campus and inspires behavioral change. Your program should also teach your campus community to recognize social engineering methods that attackers use to gain access to protected information. This is especially important for higher-level employees that are more likely to be targeted by attackers due to their positions and the information they have access to.

Introduce technical controls.

Knowledge is power, but you’ll need to combine your “human element” awareness training with a strong cybersecurity system that takes into account usage policies, access control, data encryption, device inventory, and vulnerabilities, among other considerations. Higher education faces many challenges when working to secure systems and data, especially as the popularity of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) increases and the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to advance. Faculty and students alike will be adopting new technologies on a regular basis and your institution needs a plan for securing those devices. If just one synced device becomes infected, your entire network is at risk. A successful cybersecurity program will help your institution rein in all these “pieces” of strategy and make them work as a cohesive unit.

Technical controls shouldn’t just be the purview of IT. They will require a collaborative effort between a variety of departments, including administration, IT, finance, human resources, and others. Each department within your institution is likely to need its own unique technical controls in addition to the campus-wide restrictions.

A cyberattack isn’t just about the loss of personally identifiable information; it can also have financial, reputational, and operational repercussions for your institution.

Ensure you are compliant.

In addition to the promise you have made to your faculty, students, and staff to keep their data safe, there are various local, state, and Federal regulations that your institution must comply with, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which prevents institutions from disclosing education records or personally identifiable information without written consent, and the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS), which protects payment information. Higher education institutions must also be in compliance with the Higher Education Act (HEA), Federal Information Security Modernization Act of 2014 (FISMA 2014), Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and others. A cyberattack isn’t just about the loss of personally identifiable information; it can also have financial, reputational, and operational repercussions for your institution. Compliance is key when creating and implementing your cybersecurity policies, procedures, and plans.

Securing the data and resources of a higher education institution requires a multifaceted cybersecurity initiative and it is fundamental for every institution of higher learning to ensure that both sides of the desk are protected. After all that’s done, then maybe it’s time for a stroll on the beach.


About The Author: Daniel Gibson

Daniel Gibson (CISA, CISSP, MBA, M.S. Cybersecurity) is a Senior Security Specialist at GreyCastle Security. Prior to joining GreyCastle, Daniel has served as the Director of Information Security for the Ayco Company, a Goldman Sachs Company, and in IT Advisory Services at Ernst & Young. Additionally, he has held roles managing information technology and security initiatives in various industries, including healthcare, finance and technology marketing.

His 10 plus years’ experience in IT and cybersecurity, includes extensive experience in risk assessment and management, incident response, HIPAA, ISO 27001/2, NIST 800-53, SOX, GLBA, vendor risk management, contracts, security awareness training, and leading comprehensive enterprise security programs.


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