Cybersecurity Failure Forces University Closure. What Went Wrong?

A recent ransomware attack forced a college into closure after 157 years. What can we learn from this case? And why are ransomware attacks against higher education institutions on the rise?

Ransomware demands have spiked in 2021, with hundreds of educational institutions suffering the impact of a ransomware attack. The average ransom paid has increased to more than $500,000 per attack — a massive cost for public institutions to incur in the name of regaining control of data.

After struggling to overcome the forces brought on by the pandemic, Lincoln College, a predominantly Black college, was forced to shut down permanently after suffering from a devastating ransomware attack.

In light of this latest episode, and the larger rise in ransomware attacks, it’s important for higher education CIOs to take stock of today’s cybersecurity landscape. With the stakes so high — and with precious information stored within higher education institutions — it’s paramount that colleges and universities enlist robust cybersecurity strategies to stay fully protected against global cyber adversaries.

 

What Went Wrong at Lincoln College?

A perfect storm of decreased enrollment during the pandemic, costly requirements for technology upgrades for remote learning, and a ransomware attack in December 2021 forced Lincoln College to close its doors permanently after 157 years. After paying the initial $100,000 ransom and reclaiming access to vital financial and operations data, the institution’s leadership discovered a dire financial circumstance they had long feared: the university needed $50 million to continue operations.

It didn’t find the money.

Ransomware attacks like this are becoming increasingly common and have the potential to cause a devastating amount of institutional damage and community loss. In this case, as well as many others where higher education institutions are targeted, the Iran-based cyber criminals walled off the school’s access to its own data. Recruitment was halted, student enrollment and retention stopped, and fund-raising initiatives ceased.

 

What We Can Learn from Lincoln College’s Mistakes

Cyberattacks like the one inflicted upon Lincoln College can happen to anyone, anywhere. Larger institutions are prime targets, as well as educational institutions — which often have limited budgets and skimp on cybersecurity relative to enterprise-level organizations.

In 2021, over 200 educational institutions were targets of ransomware. Sophisticated cybercriminals zero in on unprepared schools, colleges, and universities with ransomware attacks that encrypt victims’ digital data until a ransom is paid. Regardless of whether the ransom is paid or not, Lincoln College proves a cautionary tale of how crippling these attacks can be from a time-value standpoint — especially when the ransomed data is critical to day-to-day operations.

While the exact vulnerability in the Lincoln College case isn’t clear, the broader strokes of what we do already know paint a familiar picture – namely, a lack of security updates, two-factor authentications, and other essential cybersecurity safeguards that seemingly weren’t up to industry standards at the time of the attack.

 

How Higher Education Institutions Can Prepare Against Ransomware

Rest assured, there are a number of effective measures higher education institutions can administer to ward off cyberattacks. In the case of Lincoln College, a multi-level redundant backup solution could have rendered the ransom attack useless, spared countless headaches, and perhaps even saved the school from shuttering.

Higher education CIOs aren’t alone in facing ransomware threats – or at least, they don’t need to be. Partnering with an expert IT team gives universities and colleges access to best-in-class cybersecurity solutions capable of safeguarding institutions against all forms of cybercrime. Having a qualified partner at your disposal 24/7 allows you to effectively systems, push updates, and isolate threats before they cause too much damage.

 

Higher education institutions should shore up these three areas to counter ransomware:

Wireless Connectivity — Modern universities and colleges are expected to power wireless connectivity that keeps pace with the times. Offering accessible and fast wireless connectivity to students across your entire campus shouldn’t come at the expense of reliability or security. With the right team behind you, university CIOs can keep students safe, keep personal information protected, and still have them feel intimately connected to their curricula and campus life.

In fact, the first-class team at TTI ensures your security is top-notch and can conduct a rigorous site survey to ensure wireless deployment across your campus aligns with the needs of your students and faculty.

The bottom line? Gone are the days when university IT leaders needed to choose between network security and top-tier network performance.

Device Demands — CIOs of universities and colleges are tasked with managing more devices today than ever before.

Keep in mind that today’s student uses at least five different devices on average to connect to their campus network. From laptops to tablets and smartphones to gaming systems, modern networks should be designed for the modern student.

So in this context, what should a modern campus network look like? Is your network capable of meeting the demands of students and faculty with the ability to scale and manage thousands of endpoints now and into the future?

As a trusted partner, TTI will help you develop BYOD policies and help you create new security protocols that are fundamental to running fast, reliable and secure campus networks.

Structured Cabling — Since structured cabling transmits vital voice, video, and data signals across campus, it remains the backbone of most campus networks. University CIOs would be wise to lean on leading industry experts and engineers when it comes to installing, troubleshooting, consolidating, or cleaning-up cabling infrastructure.

In this day and age, institutions of higher education should take advantage of scalable standards-based cabling systems that maximize uptime, eliminate breakdowns, and optimize productivity levels for students and faculty alike. TTI delivers the most effective wired infrastructure, designed to support the full scale of voice, data, and security needs across campus.

 

Addressing these three areas is a great place to start for higher education CIOs who want to stay ahead of tomorrow’s next ransomware attack. Higher education institutions that fail to leverage cutting-edge network analytics, closet clean-up, and optimized outdoor wireless networks remain a step behind new-age cyber threats. Because the reality is without the right security measures in place, any university is vulnerable to becoming the next Lincoln College.

The expert team at TTI has been keeping universities and colleges safe and secure for decades. We specialize in delivering, managing, and supporting the most effective cybersecurity solutions designed specifically for higher education institutions.

Savvy higher education CIOs understand that turning to a trusted partner like TTI — who assesses security threats, identifies vulnerabilities, and then continues to monitor operations from afar, 24/7 — is more than a mere matter of dollars and cents, but is a matter of long-term viability in the digital age.

To learn more about how we tailor security solutions to meet the needs of schools, colleges, and universities, speak with our team today!

By Tony Pugielli

June 24, 2022

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