Cyber attacks rise: NCSC increases support for UK education sector

NCSC issues advice to help UK schools, colleges and universities counter a rise in cyber attacks

Today, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) – a part of GCHQ – has issued an alert to the education sector following a rise in ransomware attacks since late February.

It has also set out practical steps to keep your networks safe from criminal activity.

The NCSC said there have been “varying levels of disruption, including targeting school financial records”. It proposes adopting a ‘defence in depth’ strategy, which includes installing and enabling antivirus software and ensuring you have up-to-date and tested offline back-ups.

Paul Chichester, director of operations at the NCSC, said: “This is a growing threat and we strongly encourage schools, colleges, and universities to act on our guidance and help ensure their students can continue their education uninterrupted.

“We are committed to ensuring the UK education sector is resilient against cyber threats, and have published practical resources to help establishments improve their cyber security and response to cyber incidents.”

Steve Kennett, director of e-infrastructure, Jisc, said: “We have seen what a devastating impact this crime has on the [HE] sector. I urge all education and research institutions to act swiftly to ensure their systems and data are robustly protected.”

Often the aim of cyber criminals deploying ransomware is to encrypt data that will have the most impact on an organisation’s services. This can affect access to computer networks as well as services including email systems and websites.

The NCSC previously reported an increase in ransomware attacks on the UK education sector in August and September 2020, and has updated this alert in line with the latest activity.

The NCSC also recommends that network defenders read its mitigating malware and ransomware guidance and prepare for any breaches by planning and rehearsing ransomware scenarios.

Matt Bearpark, head of product for connectivity and online safety at RM plc, said: “RM has seen a marked increase in the number of malware infections in education establishments leading to ransomware demands that have led to some schools, universities and colleges being seriously impacted – losing access to key files and data, or being unable to teach for a period of time whilst systems are restored.

“We believe that in many cases these issues were avoidable, and we welcome the actions of the NCSC in alerting the sector to some of the precautions they can take – to both minimise the likelihood of such an attack, as well as to mitigate the impact that one may have upon their ongoing operation.

“… there are always new risks to stay aware of and potential vulnerabilities and fallibility in process and human behaviour.”

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