Ben Hayward September 16th

The UK's cyber-security agency has issued a warning to universities and colleges that rising numbers of cyber-attacks are threatening to disrupt the start of term.

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) issued the alert following a recent spike in ransomware attacks on educational institutions blocking access to computer systems.

This is then followed by a ‘ransom note’ demanding payment for the recovery of the frozen or stolen data - sometimes with the added threat of publicly releasing sensitive information.

The warnings come at at time when schools, colleges and universities are already facing problems with Covid-19, with the NCSC saying the cyber attacks could ‘de-rail preparations for the new term’ and have ‘devastating impacts’ that could take weeks or months to put right.

Newcastle University and Northumbria have both been targeted by cyber-attacks this month, while a group of further education colleges in Yorkshire and a higher education college in Lancashire were hit in August.

Universities have frequently been targets of cyber-attacks - with up to a thousand attacks per year in the UK, with the aim often being to obtain valuable information that is commercially and politically sensitive as well as data about students, staff and former students.

Earlier this summer more than 20 universities and charities in the UK, US and Canada were caught up in a ransomware cyber-attack involving a cloud computing supplier, Blackbaud.

The NCSC warning highlights the vulnerability of online systems as increased numbers of staff and students are forced to work remotely due to Covid-19. 

Paul Chichester, the NCSC's director of operations, said: "The criminal targeting of the education sector, particularly at such a challenging time, is utterly reprehensible. I would strongly urge all academic institutions to take heed of our alert.”

The message was also backed by Jisc, the body which provides internet services for UK universities and research centres, who agree that the "education and research community", institutions need to take action to reduce their risks.

Universities UK says data security has had to become a priority for higher education - and that ‘protections are in place to manage threats as much as possible’.

The universities body also says it is working with the NCSC to produce ‘robust guidance on cyber-security’ which will be released later this academic year.

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You can find more information about why having a VPN is more important than ever at the moment here.  

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