Universities top the list for hackers
Universities were the sector most attacked by cybercriminals across the world in 2013, as hackers abused their large and porous networks to get to intellectual property sometimes vital to national security.
The education sector topped a list of targets for cyber criminals last year in a report by FireEye the cybersecurity company, which analysed almost 40,000 attacks.
Ken Geers, senior global threat analyst at FireEye, said universities were being targeted by "advanced persistent threats," determined, often state-sponsored hackers.
"Universities have a very rich intellectual property base, emerging technology, new patents and cutting-edge research in an environment meant to be open to the world and collaboration," he said. "These are good hackers, thinking in the long term."
Elite research universities, most often in the U.S., were the most likely to be targeted because of their links to government, which was the fourth most popular target, after financial services and high-tech industries.
"A lot of these universities happen to be doing research today that will be classified in five years if the navy or the air force picks up the research," he said. "So you can see why the advanced persistent threats might be thinking that far ahead to support their mission."
Universities could be looking at "torpedoes, hypersonic missiles, high performance quantum computing" that would "benefit the military or intelligence organisation of any state," he said.
He added that universities often lacked the protections that government and large critical infrastructure providers are putting in place and their staff's openness to collaboration may mean they are not as "guarded" as, for example, a government employee.
U.K. security services warned universities to be more vigilant in protecting themselves against cyberattacks last year, with the outgoing head of MI5, the security service, briefing vice-chancellors on the importance of protecting intellectual property from hackers.
In the U.S., the University of Maryland announced last week that it had been compromised in a "sophisticated" cyberattack in which student data, including Social Security numbers, were lost. Yale, Brown and Boston universities have all reported being victims of attacks.
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There were more than 5,000 attacks from advanced persistent threats in 2013 and in total more than 100 attacks a day by all hackers, the report said. The U.S. was the most frequent target of attacks last year, followed by South Korea, Canada, Japan and the U.K., all intellectual property-rich countries.
Hackers relied much more on attacking through the web than through email, though both methods were widely used. They also used "zero days," previously unknown vulnerabilities in software such as Java and Internet Explorer that can be used to access a network, including against the U.S. government.
—By Hannah Kuchler of the Financial Times