The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has issued an alert of ransomware attacks aimed at schools, colleges and universities.
It has also published guidance for the sector, detailing recent trends and providing advice on mitigating attacks.
Ransomware attacks typically involve the encryption of an organisation’s data by criminals with a demand for money in exchange for its recovery. NCSC said it has recorded a rise in the number of attacks in August, prompted by the impending return of students, with varying levels of disruption depending on the security in place.
Paul Chichester, director of operations at NCSC, said: “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 guidance includes observations on trends in recent months around weaknesses in remote desktop protocols, vulnerable software or hardware and responses to phishing emails. It adds that attackers have also been seen to sabotage back-up or auditing devices, encrypt entire virtual servers, and use scripting environments to deploy tooling or ransomware.
Defence in depth
It recommends that organisations implement a ‘defence in depth’ strategy, involving a range of techniques. These include employing vulnerability management and patching procedures, using multi-factor authentication, having up-to-date and tested offline back-ups, an implementing mechanisms to prevent phishing attacks.
There have been previous concerns about cyber security weaknesses in academia. In April of last year the Higher Education Policy Institute and Jisc, the agency providing technology services to the sector, published a policy paper highlighting high levels of penetration by spear phishing.
It also pointed to a survey of universities’ IT and security staff that showed only 15% scored their organisation as eight or more out of 10 for being well protected. The mean score was 5.9.
Image from NCSC, Open Government Licence v3.0