Higher education institutions, or HEIs, are responsible for collecting and storing different types of sensitive information. Keeping this information secure is essential. However, the nature of colleges and universities can make these requirements difficult. With many entry points for cybercriminals to exploit, colleges and universities have become targets for malware, ransomware, and other security threats.
The potential of becoming a victim of cybercrime provides a variety of concerns for academic organizations. Colleges and universities have a responsibility to protect the sensitive information of students and staff. Additionally, Title IV schools that provide federal financial aid programs are legally required to provide certain levels of security as outlined by the Gramm-Leach Bliley Act (GLBA) and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Non-compliance with these requirements may lead to an institution losing Title IV funding.
Keeping data secure in higher education organizations is a major undertaking. Using the right software can provide a wealth of helpful information to keep sensitive data secure. Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) software can provide higher education institutions with the tools they need for GLBA compliance and to keep systems safe from digital threats.
The Difficulties of Protecting HEIs Against Cybercriminals
Colleges and universities are designed with a system that provides students and staff with easy access to critical information. Higher education industries are consistently forced to attempt to strike a perfect balance between an easily accessible network and a secure one. Protecting sensitive data in this type of environment presents a variety of unique challenges.
Unfortunately, student behavior works as a magnet for cybercriminals because they present a variety of vulnerabilities. For instance, students can use their college network for work and play across a variety of devices, often with weak passwords. Easy access for students means access is made easier for hackers as well. Additionally, students rarely have an understanding of how cyber attacks work, making them prime targets for phishing emails and other targeted links that hackers use to introduce malware to the system. Perhaps even worse, students may be viewed as prime targets for crimes like identity theft because they often have a clean financial history and rarely check their credit scores for signs of trouble.
Even without considering the opportunities presented directly by student behavior, academic organizations present plenty of opportunities for attack. Research projects within colleges and universities are highly protected. Therefore, IT departments within these institutions often have limited knowledge about the information that needs to be protected within the network. It’s difficult to protect highly sensitive data if you have no knowledge of its existence.
Adding to the natural vulnerabilities of HEIs is the fact that colleges and universities are working with limited staff and budget when it comes to security. These institutions are continuously forced to compete with lowered tuition and other perks to attract students to the school. This means security can fall to the side, making schools an easy target for attackers.
Why Are Colleges and Universities a Target for Cybercriminals?
You may expect cybercriminals to attack financial institutions and wealthy organizations. The idea of targeting the education sector makes little sense — until you consider the possibilities. You already know academic organizations are responsible for storing a wealth of sensitive information. Cybercriminals know this too. They can also figure out a variety of ways to exploit potential vulnerabilities that might exist within the system of a college or university.
A wealth of evidence exists that cybercriminals have already identified the vulnerabilities of academic organizations and the potential of the data that they store. In fact, cyber attacks targeted at colleges and universities are on the rise. Without proper security techniques, more and more of these institutions will most likely become targets in the future.
Ransomware attacks have become common within the academe. In 2019, 89 U.S. school systems and universities were victims of ransomware attacks, followed by at least 30 attacks in the early months of 2020. These types of attacks target sensitive information and encrypt it so users can no longer access the data. When the encryption is complete, attackers demand a ransom worth hundreds, or even millions, of dollars for a decryption key that will return the data intact.
Colleges and universities that become victims of ransomware attacks face significant penalties whether the data is recovered safely or not. When colleges are the victim of an attack, they receive a lot of media attention. Ongoing reports of the related investigation lead to negative publicity that can damage the school’s enrollment numbers. Since academic organizations are legally responsible for protecting the sensitive information they collect and store, becoming victim to any cyber attack can lead to suspended or canceled federal funding.
These 4 reasons make it clear why cybercriminals target higher education institutions.
- Colleges and universities have a wealth of useful information. For cybercriminals, information is power, and power is money. The systems within HEIs include personal information like names, date of birth, social security numbers, medical histories, driver’s license numbers, and financial information. Additionally, colleges and universities often have valuable research programs that could provide high-value intellectual property.
- A variety of software types exist in one place. Many colleges and universities use a variety of systems to work across different departments. Diverse systems give hackers many ways to expose potential vulnerabilities and gain access to the system. These systems also make it difficult for IT teams to monitor and manage log information, which leads to delayed patches and slower reactions to security incidents.
- Colleges and universities have high levels of network use. Students spend a lot of time online for research, entertainment, and socializing. Additionally, back-office staff, faculty, and in-depth research projects require Wi-Fi usage as well. High levels of network traffic combined with users who are unfamiliar with the dangers of online threats make easy targets for hackers.
- Academic organizations often have weak security systems. Wealthy organizations and financial institutions often have the funds to invest in advanced security systems that make it more difficult for potential hackers to breach. Colleges and universities, on the other hand, have large networks with a variety of potential entry points. However, they often don’t have the funds to maintain a large in-house IT staff. Since these schools are often required to find ways to cut costs, cybersecurity systems can suffer. Hackers are aware of these vulnerabilities and the ways they can exploit them.
While the capabilities of cybercriminals make the future look grim for academic organizations, it’s important to consider the technology available to fight those risks. Cybersecurity technology is continuously advancing in ways that provide colleges and universities with the protection they need. SIEM software offers a variety of tools to help higher education institutions identify and eliminate potential threats.
What Is SIEM?
An important part of any successful cybersecurity system, SIEM provides network users and IT professionals with a complete view of an organization’s security scope, including log management, workflow, and compliance. SIEM stands for Security Information and Event Management. It combines the software from Security Information Management (SIM) and that of Security Event Management into a comprehensive system that gives users the ability to have real-time alerts of what’s happening across their network, including user activity, hardware, and software. This combination gives organizations access to volumes of data that can identify current threats and prevent potential attacks from occurring in the future.
SIEM software works by collecting and logging data from across an organization’s entire system. From user activity to antivirus events and firewall logs, SIEM collects all data, then identifies it and sorts it into categories. The data is then logged in a central location in your chosen format, creating easily understandable information about events that occurred within the system. Since the software has the capability to identify and organize data into categories, it also can identify threats and send out alerts, potentially notifying an organization of an attack before significant damage occurs, or even before the attacker breaks into the system.
The capabilities of SIEM software provides these benefits for organizations and institutions.
- Improved log reporting, analysis, and retention
- Increased efficiency with the automatic collection, categorization, and logging of essential data which reduces manual IT tasks
- Reduced impact of security breaches
- Identification and prevention of potential security threats
- Automatic IT compliance through the automatic logging of standard compliance reports to prepare for routine audits
How SIEM Provides Essential Protection for Higher Education Institutions
A quality SIEM program provides several tools that help colleges and universities protect sensitive information and maintain compliance with FERPA and GLBA. Often, SIEM software works as the foundation for a complete cybersecurity system that protects the network of colleges and universities. While SIEM provides a variety of organizations with essential security tools, the natural operation of the software provides targeted benefits that address the security challenges faced by higher education institutions. SIEM systems provide these benefits for colleges and universities.
Essential Components of GLBA Compliance
Title IV schools (colleges and universities that provide federal financial aid) are legally required to maintain compliance with the Gramm-Leach Bliley Act (GLBA). These requirements include log monitoring and management, the assistance of SOC software, the ability to identify and assess risks, and the ability to perform routine audits. SIEM meets all of these requirements with a system that is easy to customize and provides simplified reporting for the yearly audits.
SIEM monitors and records all types of activity within a network. More importantly, the software can learn to identify regular activity, and consequently, identify suspicious activity as well. As SIEM software evolves, it becomes better at recognizing threats that can’t be identified by human effort alone. For instance, human-led ransomware attacks are designed to move laterally across the system of an institution in a way that mimics regular user activity. When abnormal activities occur, the SIEM system can provide real-time alerts to interrupt and halt a potential attack.
Complete Visibility Into Your IT System
Organizations with large data systems require extensive log management capabilities. As IT systems grow, visibility can be lost as data is gathered across a variety of systems and logs continue to grow. SIEM gathers all the data into one comprehensive dashboard that eliminates these blind spots for complete visibility of the entire scope of your network’s security system.
Easily Digestible Security Data
Event data is generated across different devices and services. This means the data is also generated in different ways. Comparing this data is difficult when it’s rarely formatted in the same way. SIEM software collects and centralizes the data. It also reformats the data in the way that best suits your IT team. Normalizing this data into the same format creates categorized information that is easy to understand and therefore, makes it easier to find discrepancies. The ability to see actions from different systems in the same format makes it easier to identify a security event.
User Behavior Analytics
Advanced ransomware is designed to exploit the vulnerabilities of a system to gain access to the network. Once the system is accessed, the attacker uses lateral movement to gain higher levels of authority. These actions are masked to appear as regular user activity. This deceptive behavior allows attackers to complete their objective without alerting the IT team that the system has been infiltrated.
When SIEM includes User Behavior Analytics (UBA), these behaviors are more likely to be recognized. SIEM software that includes the ability to interface with user authentication and user behavior across a variety of systems has the potential to identify active threats before attackers gain the access they need to carry out an attack.
While protecting sensitive information within the networks of colleges and universities presents many challenges, cybersecurity specialists are rising to the occasion. SIEM is one part of a complete cybersecurity solution to protect the important data stored in the network of your academic institution. Get in touch with the cybersecurity specialists at BitLyft Cybersecurity for more information about how SIEM software can help protect your higher education institution against cyber attacks.