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Rising Threats: 2024 Cybersecurity Trends Impacting Higher Education


Nearly two-thirds of campus leaders ranked data security as one of their top concerns. This comes as institutions find themselves at the forefront of an escalating battle against a myriad of cyber threats. From virtual classes to research stored in the cloud, education has become more digital, multiplying the attack surface.


According to Check Point Software, educational institutions experienced the highest number of cyberattacks in the first quarter of 2023, rising to an average of 2,507 attempts per college or university per week. That’s a 15 percent increase compared to the first quarter of 2022.


Cyberattacks are not completely unavoidable, but as we navigate through 2024, there are steps to take to reduce the odds of a successful attack. In this blog, we shed light on the leading challenges, but more importantly, the proactive measures institutions should work towards.


Ransomware: The Unrelenting Adversary

79 percent of higher education providers surveyed in Sophos’s “The State of Ransomware in Education 2023” report noted that they were hit by ransomware over the previous 12 months. The leading causes – exploited vulnerabilities and compromised credentials.


With the wealth of sensitive information stored in university databases, from personal student records to groundbreaking research data, the potential fallout of a successful ransomware attack is profound. Attackers are now not only encrypting data but also threatening to release sensitive information publicly if the ransom is not paid. This double-edged strategy not only puts financial strain on universities but also jeopardizes their reputation and the trust of their stakeholders.


Mitigation Strategies:

  • Regular data backups with off-site storage.
    • Higher education ranks among the bottom three sectors globally for backup use, according to Sophos.
  • Robust incident response plans for immediate action.
  • Employee training on recognizing phishing attempts, a common entry point for ransomware.
  • Upgrade legacy solutions to AI-powered security that works proactively across the network and endpoints.
  • Use endpoint prevention that is automatically and instantly coordinated with network security, malware analysis, and threat management solutions to close security gaps and stop lateral movement.


Phishing: Hook, Line, and Cybersecurity Breach

Phishing attacks continue to be a pervasive threat, preying on the unsuspecting nature of users. In higher education, where diverse user groups connect to the same network, the risk amplifies. Students, faculty, and staff may be targeted with phishing emails or messages designed to trick them into revealing sensitive information or downloading malicious content.


The sophistication of phishing attacks has increased, with cybercriminals using advanced social engineering techniques to create highly convincing messages. These could range from fake financial aid notifications targeting students to spear-phishing emails impersonating professors and administrators to trick staff into divulging login credentials.


Mitigation Strategies:

  • Comprehensive cybersecurity awareness training for all users based on a security awareness program that is tailored to your institution.
  • Implementing email filtering solutions to detect and block phishing attempts.
  • Regularly updating and patching software to address vulnerabilities exploited in phishing attacks.


Internet of Things (IoT) Vulnerabilities: Connecting Safely in the Smart Campus Era

The proliferation of IoT devices on campuses, from smart classrooms to connected infrastructure, brings about a new set of cybersecurity challenges. While enhancing efficiency and convenience, these devices often lack robust security measures, making them potential entry points for cyber attackers. Compromised IoT devices can be leveraged to launch broader attacks on the university network or be used as conduits for unauthorized access.


Universities must contend with the diverse range of IoT devices and the difficulty in maintaining a standardized security protocol across them. Each device represents a potential vulnerability that could be exploited, from surveillance cameras to smart thermostats.


Mitigation Strategies:

  • Conducting thorough security assessments before implementing IoT devices.
  • Implementing network segmentation to isolate IoT devices from critical university systems.
  • Regularly updating and patching firmware on IoT devices to address security vulnerabilities.


Insider Threats: Navigating the Human Element

While external threats are a significant concern, insider threats pose an equally substantial risk to higher education cybersecurity. These threats can arise from unintentional actions, such as staff falling victim to phishing attacks or deliberate actions by disgruntled employees or students with malicious intent.


The expansive nature of university networks, with various departments and individuals accessing sensitive information, makes monitoring and controlling user behavior challenging. Balancing the need for openness and collaboration with the imperative of securing sensitive data requires a nuanced approach.


Mitigation Strategies:

  • Implementing role-based access controls to restrict user privileges and adopting zero trust framework to actualize the principle of least privilege.
  • Conducting regular security awareness training to educate users about the potential risks.
  • Establishing clear policies and procedures for reporting suspicious activities.


Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning in Cyber Attacks: A Double-Edged Sword

While AI and machine learning (ML) technologies offer promising solutions for enhancing cybersecurity, they also present new challenges. Cyber attackers are increasingly leveraging these technologies to conduct more sophisticated and targeted attacks. AI-powered malware can adapt and evolve, making detection and mitigation more challenging for traditional cybersecurity measures.


Universities need to embrace AI and ML not only for defense, but also to understand and anticipate the tactics used by cybercriminals. This includes leveraging AI for threat intelligence, anomaly detection, and behavioral analysis to stay ahead of evolving cyber threats.


Mitigation Strategies:

  • Integrating AI-powered cybersecurity solutions for threat detection and response.
  • Collaborating with industry partners and sharing threat intelligence to collectively enhance defenses.
  • Investing in ongoing training for cybersecurity professionals to keep pace with advancements in AI and ML.


Building Cyber Resilience in the Face of Threats

As higher education institutions embrace digital transformation, the need for robust cybersecurity measures has never been more critical. While the mitigation strategies mentioned in this blog are only a fraction of the available options, alone they can already be overwhelming. That’s where Cadre comes in to help simplify and act as the ultimate cybersecurity connector.


We can help you stay informed about the latest trends, implement effective mitigation strategies, and foster a culture of cybersecurity awareness. Together, we can ensure your university is resilient against cyber threats in the year ahead.


Ready for more? Read Q&A: Defense-in-Depth Strategies for Ransomware Threats next.