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NCSC: Nation State University Attacks Could Harm UK

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has been forced to issue a new report detailing the threat to the country’s universities from cyber-criminals and nation state operatives.

The NCSC argued that, while the sector has traditionally been one of the most open and outward-facing, both in terms of culture and technology, this makes the attackers’ job even easier.

The main threats are from untargeted cybercrime raids, such as ransomware and bulk personal info theft via phishing, and targeted ones like Business Email Compromise (BEC). However, it also highlighted the challenge posed by nation state hackers looking to steal cutting-edge research and IP.

“While it is highly likely that cybercrime will present the most evident difficulties for universities, state-sponsored espionage will likely cause greater long-term damage. This is particularly true for those universities which prize innovation and research partnerships. This damage will extend to the UK’s larger national interest and to those researchers whose work may give others the chance to 'publish first',” the report argued.

“Nation states almost certainly target universities for the data and information they hold. Cyber offers a deniable route to obtain information that is otherwise unavailable to them. It is likely exploited instead of, or in conjunction with, traditional routes to gain access to research, such as partnering, ‘seconded students,' or direct investment.”

The NCSC warned that attacks on UK universities by nation states could even threaten the long-term health of the country itself.

“There's a realistic possibility that the threat will increase in-line with increased scrutiny of foreign direct investment and the minimizing of other avenues to gain insight and advantage,” it added.

The GCHQ spin-off urged university IT teams to focus on: improving user security awareness; enhancing access controls, especially for sensitive data stores; and to revisit network design to segment high-value information.

Iranian hackers have been among the most prolific attackers of university IT systems: just last week more info emerged on the Cobalt Dickens group, which is targeting at least 380 universities worldwide in a major new phishing operation.

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