The @NCSC has issued an alert to the academic sector following a spate of online attacks against UK schools, colleges and universities.
Cyber security experts have today (Thursday) stepped up support for UK schools, colleges, and universities following a spate of online attacks with the potential to de-rail their preparations for the new term.
The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) issued an alert to the sector containing a number of steps they can take to keep cyber criminals out of their networks, following a recent spike in ransomware attacks.
The NCSC dealt with several ransomware attacks against education establishments in August, which caused varying levels of disruption, depending on the level of security establishments had in place.
Ransomware attacks typically involve the encryption of an organisation’s data by cyber criminals, who then demand money in exchange for its recovery.
With institutions either welcoming pupils and students back for a new term, or preparing to do so, the NCSC’s alert urges them to take immediate steps such as ensuring data is backed up and also stored on copies offline.
They are also urged to read the NCSC’s newly-updated guidance on mitigating malware and ransomware attacks, and to develop an incident response plan which they regularly test.
Paul Chichester, Director of Operations at the NCSC, said:
“This criminal targeting of the education sector, particularly at such a challenging time, is utterly reprehensible.
“While these have been isolated incidents, I would strongly urge all academic institutions to take heed of our alert and put in place the steps we suggest, to help ensure young people are able to return to education undisrupted.
“We are absolutely committed to ensuring UK academia is as safe as possible from cyber threats, and will not hesitate to act when that threat evolves.”
The new alert, Targeted ransomware attacks on the UK education sector by cyber criminals, supplements existing support that the NCSC, which is a part of GCHQ, provides academic institutions across the UK.
Examples of this include advice on the questions governing bodies and trustees should ask school leaders to improve a school’s understanding of cyber security risks, and the distribution of information cards which help staff understand how they can raise their school’s resilience to attack.
David Corke, Director of Education and Skills Policy at the Association of Colleges, said:
“As the last six months have shown us, it has never been more important for colleges to have the right digital infrastructure in order to be able to protect their systems and keep learning happening, whatever the circumstance.
“This needs a whole college approach and for a focus wider than just systems, it needs to include supporting leaders, teachers and students to recognise threats, mitigate against them, and act decisively when something goes wrong.
“This guidance will prove incredibly useful for colleges to ensure that they can do just that.”
Steve Kennett, Executive Director of e-infrastructure at the higher education support body Jisc, said:
“Jisc welcome the NCSC support in dealing with the current spate of ransomware impacting the UK Education and Research community.
“We encourage everyone to review the latest guidance from the NCSC and take the time to assess the risks to their organisation.”
Institutions that have been infected with ransomware have seen their ability to operate effectively and deliver services significantly obstructed and, depending on an organisation’s level of resilience, it can take weeks – and in some cases months - for services to return to normal.
Often the aim of cyber criminals deploying ransomware is to encrypt data that will have the most impact on an organisation’s services. This can affect access to computer networks as well as services including telephone systems and websites.
The NCSC has recently updated its ransomware and malware guidance, which is generally applicable to organisations in all industries in the UK. Additions to this include updated information on attackers’ modus operandi and advice on preparing for an incident.
Recent research reveals that half of UK universities reported a breach to the ICO in the last 12 months – revealed by an FOI campaign from Redscan in July 2020. The FOI also revealed that a quarter of universities haven’t commissioned a pen test from an external provider in the last year, while only 54% of university staff nationwide have received security training.
Redscan CTO, Mark Nicholls, said:
“UK universities are among the most well-respected learning and research centres globally, yet our analysis highlights inconsistencies in the approach institutions are taking to protect their staff, students and intellectual property against the latest cyber threats.
“The fact that such a large number of universities don’t deliver cyber security training to staff and students, nor commission independent penetration testing, is concerning. These are foundational elements of every security program and key to helping prevent data breaches.
“Even at this time of intense budgetary pressure, institutions need to ensure that their cyber security teams receive the support they need to defend against sophisticated adversaries. Breaches have the potential to seriously impact organisations’ reputation and funding.”
“The threat posed to universities by nation state attackers makes the need for improvements even more critical. The cost of failing to protect scientific research is immeasurable.”
Andy Warren, UK&I Director, Public Sector, at Veritas Technologies, said:
“2020 has shown us that when it comes to ransomware attacks, it is a matter of if, not when. With many students relying on virtual lectures, downtime caused by ransomware will have a massive impact on their education and on Universities ability to provide the services they charge for. And this is to say nothing about data compliance."
“Breaches can do some serious, long-lasting damage. The best defence against this constantly evolving threat is a comprehensive approach to data security involving staff and student education, intrusion security, email and spam filters, antimalware, endpoint protection software and backups. Data is arguably the single most precious asset to a university but, to keep it safe, you need a strong foundation of management and best practice.
“If a robust data protection solution is in place and hackers demand ransom, universities can walk away from the criminal's threats safe in the knowledge that they have alternative copies of their data stored safely elsewhere.”
Luke Budka, head of digital PR and SEO at TopLine Comms, the agency that submitted the requests, says:
“The recent revelation that hackers extorted $1.14m from the University of California prompted us to submit request to UK universities asking for details on ransomware attacks and ransom amounts paid. We were naturally most interested in Russell Group universities as their research focus suggests they’ve got the most valuable intellectual property.
“Of the 18 Russell Group universities that responded, all but three refused to answer the questions submitted. The University of Manchester admitted it had been attacked but said it didn’t record when; The University of Sheffield was attacked in 2015 and The University of Edinburgh stated it had not been attacked in the last ten years.”
One third of UK universities have been subjected to ransomware attacks according to Freedom of Information requests submitted to 134 universities in July 2020.
Of the 105 universities that responded, 35 universities admitted to being attacked (33%), 25 universities said they hadn’t been (24%) and 43 universities refused to answer (45%) – full list can be accessed here.
Refusals typically centred around the universities’ concerns that admission of attack would encourage further misdemeanours (typically citing 31.1.a of the FOIA – ‘the prevention or detection of crime’). They stated that no inference as to whether they’d be attacked or not, should be drawn from the refusal that the information requested does or does not exist.
Certain universities, including the University of Oxford, felt that their profiles made them more likely to be attacked. Oxford notes: “…launching a successful attack would then be regarded in criminal circles as a noteworthy achievement, particularly in view of Oxford’s high public profile.”
Of all the 35 universities that admitted they were attacked, 34 confirmed they did not pay ransoms. The remaining university, Liverpool John Moores, refused to reveal whether it’d paid a ransom or not.
The majority of incidents happened in 2015 (31% of incidents), 2016 (34%) and 2017 (23%).
With most universities reporting isolated incidents, Sheffield Hallam University and City, University of London stood out, reporting 42 attacks since 2013, and seven attacks since 2014, respectively.