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Cyber security alert issued following rising attacks on UK academia

The National Cyber Security Centre, a part of GCHQ, is supporting educational establishments to keep criminals out of their networks after a spike in ransomware attacks. The rise in attacks was recorded in August as cybercriminals turn their attention to a sector focused on the return of students.

The advice has been created with the input of the sector and is the latest in a series of support packages for academia. Cybersecurity experts have stepped up support for UK schools, colleges, and universities following a spate of online attacks with the potential to de-rail their preparations for the new term.

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) issued an alert to the sector containing a number of steps they can take to keep cybercriminals out of their networks, following a recent spike in ransomware attacks. The NCSC dealt with several ransomware attacks against education establishments in August, which caused varying levels of disruption, depending on the level of security establishments had in place. Ransomware attacks typically involve the encryption of an organisation’s data by cybercriminals, who then demand money in exchange for its recovery.

With institutions either welcoming pupils and students back for a new term or preparing to do so, the NCSC’s alert urges them to take immediate steps such as ensuring data is backed up and also stored on copies offline.
They are also urged to read the NCSC’s newly-updated guidance on mitigating malware and ransomware attacks, and to develop an incident response plan which they regularly test.

Paul Chichester, Director of Operations at the NCSC, said:
“This criminal targeting of the education sector, particularly at such a challenging time, is utterly reprehensible. 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 new alert, Targeted ransomware attacks on the UK education sector by cybercriminals, supplements existing support that the NCSC, which is a part of GCHQ, provides academic institutions across the UK.

Examples of this included advice on the questions governing bodies and trustees should ask school leaders to improve a school’s understanding of cybersecurity risks, and the distribution of information cards which help staff understand how they can raise their school’s resilience to attack.