UAE universities fight back against cybercrime
DUBAI // A rise in cybercrimes has forced universities to launch counterattacks.
With an increasing reliance on paperless systems, educational facilities across the region have left themselves more open to attack, experts have warned.
“Most universities, including American University of Sharjah, use institutional databases to store sensitive and personal information about their students, faculty and staff,” said the university’s chief operating officer Dr Olin McDaniel.
“This has led to an increase in network attacks, spyware and phishing attempts on higher education in the region by cyber criminals.
“To protect our networks, data and information systems against such threats, we continue to strengthen our security measures through the expanded use of encryption technologies, scanning and security software as well as next-generation firewalls that help protect our networks from these attacks. We also have expanded our forensics capabilities against possible internal threats that include grade manipulation and other similar actions.”
Exam results can now be accessed online at many institutes, with research also available online.
The threat of cybercrimes cannot be ignored, said Prof Tod Laursen, president of Khalifa University. “Now you’re talking about all this data electronically, from papers to the registrar’s office with students’ records, pieces of information that you need to be held confidentially. From the person compiling an exam paper to the person delivering that exam, there’s a lot of information security issues.”
Although seen as a cumbersome process, simple steps such as changing passwords must be adhered to, Prof Laursen said.
“Most system failings are usually down to us as users,” he said. “It gets hard to remember passwords, so, often we use the same ones. These things are what open risks.”
Other issues, such as cheating, are another challenge, Prof Laursen said.
He said another factor that has to be considered when dealing with electronic systems is how quickly breaches can escalate.
“Things can get out of your control faster because so much is done electronically. If you don’t have a good system for protecting sensitive data, there’s much more potential for things to spin out of control quickly.”
Matthew Boice, head of Ellucian, which offers higher education software, services, and analytics, said the threat had grown.
About 19 institutions in the UAE, federal and private universities and colleges, work with Ellucian to protect their networks.
“For universities it’s not just an external threat but an internal threat,” Mr Boice said.
“A lot more use is being made of electronic aids and teaching.
Despite the cons, however, paperless systems have many benefits.
“If you had to evacuate a campus, you can communicate that quickly,” Mr Boice said.
“Or, if there are boys trying to get into girls’ dorms, these things can be addressed quickly.”
Among the strengths of working online is the ability to identify suspicious behaviour in pupils or staff, Mr Boice said.
“It makes it easier to identify if a person has been targeted, for example, by a terrorist organisation. If a person has been skipping classes, not engaging in any social activity, flags can be raised.
“Young people who’ve become disenfranchised have become vulnerable and that’s a different threat.”
And although extra measures must be taken to combat the growth in cybercrimes, most are still committed internally as opposed to by external actors.
“People will naturally want to hack their own network and show off their skills ... probing the facility around them,” Mr Boice said.
“Compared to western countries, there’s a lot more upfront vetting that goes on before students join,” Prof Laursen added.
Updated: August 13, 2015 04:00 AM