Higher education cybersecurity considerations

Higher education cybersecurity considerations to tackle the 2022 threat landscape

Cyber posture assessments

First things first - getting visibility is priority number one.

You need to identify the things you don’t know. If you don’t understand where your knowledge gaps are, how can you possibly create a comprehensive security strategy? This harks back to the point we made around having a lack of visibility into the actual real threat.

Understanding how systems are connected, accessed and used is imperative. You probably already have solutions in place that monitor activity across the network, this data paired with a detailed understanding of network architecture can go a long way to understanding vulnerable areas of the enterprise. Special attention should be given to ‘what if’ scenarios, for example - If this point in the network is compromised, what exactly will be exposed and what is the impact of this exposure?

Ensuring you understand the risk landscape and preparing for worst-case scenarios relevant to you provides a solid foundation to build more advanced cybersecurity practices. Cybersecurity posture/risk assessments can provide a comprehensive analysis of your organisation as well as a prioritised list of recommended remediations to improve your cybersecurity posture.


Endpoint protection - We’ve asked the question.

We’ve heard both sides of the coin on this, should endpoint protection be a prerequisite for university students or is it an invasion of privacy?

We asked a cross-section of students in Cardiff this question and a large majority had no issue at all with software being installed on their devices. In most cases, this response didn’t change when we gave more detail around what the software would do.

We believe that if configured correctly and installed to do a job and that job only, then the benefits are universal, and the students we spoke to seemed to agree.

Having endpoint security in place helps protect students from being victim to cybercrime, which could result in the loss of university work, along with personal data. It also provides peace of mind for the University that those ‘untrusted’ devices connecting to the network have a layer of security in place to mitigate daily cyber threats.


Zero trust - the time is right

Several misconceptions may have put considering a zero trust approach down on the 'to-do' list rather than the 'do now' list. These often include: “It’s too difficult to implement fully”, “It's not user-friendly”, and “It would be difficult to make it work given the nature of higher education” - the list can go on. However…


…it might be just the right thing to do right now.

Let’s explain why. Zero Trust requires change and it’s a marathon not a sprint; it spans users, application and infrastructure. Given the changes that are required in modern day IT due to external influence and digitalisation, there is a lot of change occurring anyway.

The move to cloud-based services rather than on-premises data centres has been on-going for some time, there is also a large shift in infrastructure, how it is managed and where it lives. This is all compounded when paired with the shift to remote learning too.

It’s a busy time but it’s also the perfect time to begin implementing Zero Trust policies, principles, architecture and technology. Sure, it won’t happen overnight, but while organisations are going through such widespread changes, implementing Zero Trust now will likely cause less disruption than waiting and doing it as a project on it’s own.

To recap - Zero Trust is the reverse of most security thoughts on having ‘trusted’ elements to an organisation. With higher education having so many untrusted connections into their network, having a policy of not trusting anything until it verifies itself, makes sense.


Cyber Education

A bit of an obvious one, but the value of education cannot be overstated, especially in higher education.

Having done a little digging, we’ve found that many universities will provide cyber awareness training to staff but not students - why is this?

We appreciate that students are probably going to be less interested in sitting through an hour of “Please don’t do this” and “Don’t stick that in there”, but giving them an idea of what to look for when checking if an email is malicious or not could make a huge impact to your cyber effort.

In the same research we previously mentioned, we also asked each student if they knew anything about their university IT security policy - we had one “yes” (and it was fluffy at best).

As previously mentioned, students have a tendency to trust anything from university, making them susceptible to phishing. Knowing how to check an email sender, hover over links and identify dodgy URL’s could be the difference between a well spotted phishing email or an easily avoided disaster.


Managed Detection & Response (MDR)

Let's face it - it’s a big task securing a university IT ecosystem, especially given the growth of cyberspace, the connections into it, the diminishing visibility, and the challenge of getting the right specialist skills.

Utilising machine learning to bear some of the load is not a bad idea. You can process more data daily, check more transactions, investigate suspicious behaviour and automate routine tasks – consistently and repeatedly and avoid human error.

We did say earlier however that adding in solutions without having a specialist can sometimes bring more problems than benefit. If you haven’t got the in-house team to manage an end point detection and response solution, then the best option is to simply outsource it.

Outsourcing to a third party Managed Security Provider not only allows a university to focus attention on delivering strategy, but it also gives them access to top-of-the-line technology, people, intelligence feeds and reporting.


It’s time to rethink higher education cyber strategy

The quick shift during the pandemic resulted in service continuity being prioritised over security. This paired with the organic growth in the amount of ‘things’ to manage and secure has meant most strategies will be out of date.

Re-thinking your approach based on data, knowledge, insight into consumption, and applying cybersecurity principles that are suitable for modern-day ways of working will help build resilience into higher education establishments whilst allowing world-class learning to take place.


Steve Heneghan

Head of cybersecurity services and operations

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