Application Security // Database Security
8/5/2013
03:43 PM
Connect Directly
Facebook
Google+
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

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.

10 Top Password Managers
10 Top Password Managers
(click image for slideshow)
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.

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Cartoon
Current Issue
Flash Poll
Video
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2015-0714
Published: 2015-05-02
Multiple cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerabilities in Cisco Finesse Server 10.0(1), 10.5(1), 10.6(1), and 11.0(1) allow remote attackers to inject arbitrary web script or HTML via unspecified parameters, aka Bug ID CSCut53595.

CVE-2014-3598
Published: 2015-05-01
The Jpeg2KImagePlugin plugin in Pillow before 2.5.3 allows remote attackers to cause a denial of service via a crafted image.

CVE-2014-8361
Published: 2015-05-01
The miniigd SOAP service in Realtek SDK allows remote attackers to execute arbitrary code via a crafted NewInternalClient request.

CVE-2015-0237
Published: 2015-05-01
Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization (RHEV) Manager before 3.5.1 ignores the permission to deny snapshot creation during live storage migration between domains, which allows remote authenticated users to cause a denial of service (prevent host start) by creating a long snapshot chain.

CVE-2015-0257
Published: 2015-05-01
Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization (RHEV) Manager before 3.5.1 uses weak permissions on the directories shared by the ovirt-engine-dwhd service and a plugin during service startup, which allows local users to obtain sensitive information by reading files in the directory.

Dark Reading Radio
Archived Dark Reading Radio
Join security and risk expert John Pironti and Dark Reading Editor-in-Chief Tim Wilson for a live online discussion of the sea-changing shift in security strategy and the many ways it is affecting IT and business.