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Network Security in Educational Institutions: Time for a Rethink?

March 11, 2015 Information Technology 0 Comments

Advances in technology have increased society's reliance on the Internet. Yet in its present form, the Internet is decentralized and extremely vulnerable to malicious use. New security threats are a constant reality, requiring skilled individuals to step in and minimize their effects.

For learning institutions, network security is a top concern. The Internet is increasingly being used for a range of data management activities, including email and ListServ communication, distance education via online courses, digital archiving and e-commerce in the form of tuition payments and online purchases. Knowledge of cybersecurity is essential for all users. Colleges can encourage this by prioritizing education and awareness about the fragility of their network, ensuring that users know how to handle sensitive or personal data and operate within a data-sharing framework that mitigates risk.

Network Security in Educational Institutions: Time for a Rethink?Tackling Technology Concerns

As a distributed communication network, the Internet is characterized by nodes, or Internet users, that are interconnected with one another via communication links. A lapse in security at one node will have a domino effect due to the underlying connectivity structure of neighboring network nodes. Networks are the gateway for most student interaction with their respective institutions, and they need to be made more secure in tandem with evolving threats such as:

  • Bots and Malware: A botnet is a setup with which a criminal can use malicious software — or malware — to remotely control a user's computer, perpetrate financial scams and attack computers on its network or websites. Nuisances like spyware come disguised as free software or a link in a social media site and allow digital hackers to track and view the passwords a user enters. To mitigate the threat of malware, users should: Find a trusted source and install antivirus and anti-spyware programs; keep their firewall on; and ascertain that flash or external drives are clean prior to use.
  • Unsecured Wi-Fi Networks: Most institutions will offer free Wi-Fi for visitors' convenience. While considerate, it's also prone to risks; cybercriminals in the area may be able to access the Internet system through this network and gain access to other network-connected devices. Whenever possible, default to the secured network that requires login details
  • Hacked Accounts: Individual accounts may be compromised via phishing scams, typified by clever use of social engineering techniques to gain users' trust. In its generic form, a fraudster will create an email that seems genuine or from a legitimate organization asking for personal information. Users should consider elevating their password strength; ensuring their browser, operating system and antivirus software are up-to-date through regular updates and patches; and independently verifying requests for personal data.
  • MIA Data: Users may lose their mobile device that carried a significant amount of personal data or work-related information. Even cloud-based systems and other Internet-based file-sharing tools are at risk of leaking confidential data. Users need to have a backup strategy and check to see whether their security software package offers backup as an option. It's also advisable to use a virtual private network (VPN) when in public places.
  • Spam: Spam, the email equivalent of junk mail, can do more than clutter up inboxes: Links and attachments can prompt users to download a digital virus. Users should work to keep their email address as private as possible, use an email filter and vigilantly check a website's privacy policy before submitting any personal information. Remember, there is a CAN-SPAM Act that protects users from deceptive email messages, and senders can be penalized for violation.

Learning institutions should be at the forefront of tackling potential cybersecurity risks. They have to adopt and maintain a holistic approach to addressing cybersecurity at multiple levels within the complex systems that depend on computing components. This requires commitment and dedication to collaboration with both internal and external network security entities in addition to building partnerships across the university and the outside community.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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