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8/5/2013
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University E-Mail Security Practices Criticized

One example: 25% of colleges surveyed by Halock Security Labs request applicants send personal data, including W2s, over unencrypted email to admissions and financial aid offices.

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Are colleges and universities, those bastions of open discussion and debate, paradoxically putting sensitive information at risk because their email systems transport messages unencrypted over the public Internet?

Yes, concludes a survey released last week by cybersecurity firm Halock Security Labs.

After surveying 162 institutions, Halock found that half of them allow the transmission of sensitive information over unencrypted email. Moreover, a quarter of the institutions actually request that applicants send personal information, including W2s, over unencrypted email to admissions and financial aid offices.

"I was surprised at the 25%," Terry Kurzynski, a partner at Schaumburg, Ill.-based Halock, told InformationWeek/Education in a phone interview. The problem was across the board, at schools big and small, Kurzynski added.

[ Run a website? Make sure you know about this security risk: HTTPS Hackable In 30 Seconds: DHS Alert. ]

Although Halock elected not to publish the names of the institutions that encouraged the use of email for sensitive documents, it did note the states in which the schools -- a mixture of Big 10, Big 8, Ivy League, community colleges and technical institutes -- are based.

Beyond parent and student financial records and social security numbers sent during the financial-aid process, proprietary university research could be compromised via insecure email connections.

Data theft is a growing problem for academia and business alike. A recent article in The New York Times reports that research universities experience "millions of hacking attempts weekly."

In its release about the survey, Halock listed a number of characteristics that make academic institutions especially susceptible to email incursions and computer hacking in general. Among them: transient and inexperienced student workers; limited security and compliance budgets; complicated and bureaucratic procurement processes; and student hackers with lots of time.

But the leading vulnerability, Kurzynski said, was immature risk management. "Unfortunately, our findings and other research shows it often takes an incident for them to have a wakeup call," he said.

Halock recommends a number of inexpensive solutions to the email-security problem, starting with a school setting up a secure Web portal for the delivery of private documents. In this configuration, email becomes a notification mechanism, not a delivery channel. The company also recommends that institutions clearly state their contact email addresses should not be used to send private information.

Since publication of the survey, some security experts have said the Halock findings are overblown. For example, according to PrivacyRights.org, computer breaches of all types at academic institutions have been on the decline, from 13% in 2005 to around 8% so far this year. Other critics note there are larger issues around data management, once sensitive documents reach a school.

"I totally agree with that," Kurzynski said. "But it begs the question, if you have such insecure methods externally, how secure are you internally?"

Halock has embarked on two new surveys of unencrypted email that are focused on financial institutions and cloud service providers. Those surveys will be published this quarter.

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