Who's hacking into UK unis? Spies, research-nickers... or rival gamers living in res hall?
Report fingers students and staff for academic cyber-attacks
Who's hacking into university systems? Here's a clue from the UK higher education tech crew at Jisc: the attacks drop dramatically during summer break.
A new study from Jisc (formerly the Joint Information Systems Committee) has suggested that rather than state-backed baddies or common criminals looking to siphon off academic research and personal information, staff or students are often the culprits in attacks against UK higher education institutions.
The non-profit body, which provides among other things internet connectivity to universities, analysed 850 attacks in the 2017-18 academic year and found a consistent pattern that occurred during term time and the UK working day.
Holidays brought with them a sharp reduction in attacks, from a peak 60-plus incidents a week during periods of the autumn term to a low of just one a week at times in the summer. It acknowledged that part of the virtual halt in summer may be down to cops and Feds cracking down on black hat distributed denial-of-service tools in the months prior, however.
Jisc is perhaps better known among Reg readers for providing the Janet network to UK education and research institutions.
Its data covered cyber-attacks against almost 190 universities and colleges and focused on denial-of-service and other large-scale infosec hits rather than phishing frauds and malware.
Staff and students with a grudge or out to cause mischief are more credible suspects in much of this rather than external hackers or spies. More sophisticated hackers might be inclined to use DDoS as some sort of smokescreen.
In a blog post, Jisc security operations centre head John Chapman admitted some of the evidence suggesting staff and students might be behind DDoS attacks is circumstantial. However, he pointed out evidence from law enforcement and detected cyber assaults supported this theory. For example, a four-day DDoS attack the unit was mitigating against was traced back to a university hall of residence – and turned out to be the result of a feud between two rival gamers.
Whoever might be behind them, the number of incidents is growing. Attacks are up 42 per cent to reach this year's 850; the previous academic year (2016-17) witnessed less than 600 attacks against fewer than 140 institutions.
Matt Lock, director of solutions engineers at Varonis, said: "This report is another reminder that some of the biggest threats facing organisations today do not involve some hoodie-wearing, elusive computer genius."
Education is targeted more often than even the finance and retail sectors, according to McAfee research (PDF).
Nigel Hawthorn, data privacy expert at McAfee, commented in March:
"The kind of data held by universities (student records/intellectual property) is a valuable commodity for cyber criminals, so it is crucial that the security and education sectors work together to protect it." ®