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Academic Institutions Face Increased Threat of Cyberattacks

American research universities typically structure their data and digital networks to be as accessible and open as possible to promote the open exchange and sharing of information. While an "open architecture" is excellent for academic freedom and the sharing and widespread dissemination of ideas, it also makes universities easy targets for cyberattacks. Around the country, universities and other centers of learning are being forced to increase security and restrict access to sensitive information such as intellectual property, research data, and personally identifiable information.

The challenges of addressing data security on campus are much different than in government or in the private sector. It is difficult to provide a free flow of information while simultaneously placing access restrictions and user limits on data. Many universities are spending considerable time and money to rethink their approaches to information management. They are testing new methods and policies to attempt to share as much data as possible, while maintaining the most secure environment possible.

Nonetheless, attacks and breaches continue to increase. A recent New York Times article reveals that several American universities have admitted to learning of break-ins or data breaches "much later, if ever, and that even after discovering the breaches they may not be able to tell what was taken" or compromised. A large number of recent attacks originated in China where hackers are skilled at masking their efforts and quickly identifying which data is valuable and which is not to minimize their footprint while breaching networks.  Because university networks are accessed daily by thousands of students, professors, visitors and staff, the task of identifying an unauthorized user or detecting illicit behavior on the network is daunting.

Some measures universities are taking include requiring all professors and staff to have their computers scrubbed for malware by a professional after returning from foreign travel, training researchers on federal law that prohibits them from taking certain types of data overseas, imposing access restrictions based on a need-to-know policy, and increasing budgets and staff significantly. All these measures present significant legal and internal governance challenges that should be addressed in an effective but legal manner. Legal counsel should be involved at each step to ensure compliance with the law, and to help mitigate the privacy and intellectual freedom concerns of students and faculty.

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