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UK universities face rising threat from nation state hackers

Written by Thu 19 Sep 2019

NCSC warns the threat of state-sponsored espionage is mounting

The National Cyber Security Centre has warned that UK universities face increasing cyber threats from criminals and nation states.

While the most immediate disruptive threat emanates from criminals seeking financial gain, the longer-term threat comes from nation states intent on stealing research for strategic gain, the NCSC assessed in a report jointly-produced with the CPNI.

Universities contribute significantly to the economy, skills development and innovation in the UK. As a result, they handle large amounts of personal and research data, intellectual property and other assets.

Like all businesses, universities attract criminals intent on committing fraud or stealing their assets. But the valuable research and intellectual property universities generate makes them a bigger target for state-sponsored cyber crime than other organisations.

Emails, bulk personal information on staff and students, technical resources, and sensitive research can be used for commercial advantage to advance equivalent research efforts, military or security apparatus, the NCSC said.

In August 2018 researchers discovered 3000 fake websites and login pages for 76 universities across 14 countries, including the UK, which they attributed to Iranian actors intent on stealing intellectual property.

Successful cyber espionage threatens the value of UK research, investment levels and the UK’s knowledge advantages, the NCSC said.

“We believe that state espionage will continue to pose the most significant threat to the long-term health of both universities and the UK itself. There’s a realistic possibility that the threat will increase in-line with increased scrutiny of foreign direct investment and the minimising of other avenues to gain insight and advantage,” it added.

To shore up their defences universities need to improve security awareness among staff and students, maintain strict access controls, improve network design and ensure potentially sensitive or high-value research is separated rather than stored in one area.

“NCSC is working closely with the academic sector to ensure that, wherever the threat comes from, they are able to protect their research and their universities in cyberspace,” said Sarah Lyons, deputy director for Economy and Society, NCSC.

Written by Thu 19 Sep 2019

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