MIT, Cambridge, Other Universities Get D's In Internet Security

Colleges -- especially large, high-profile institutions -- are facing more cybercrime and nation-state activity.

Final exams aren't for a few months, but several big-name universities already have received low marks from a threat intelligence and risk awareness provider on their overall security posture on the Internet.

SecurityScorecard, which uses a network of Internet sensors and tools to benchmark the security posture of organizations, today published its first-ever Higher Education Security Report on some nearly 500 universities, and surprisingly, the tech-savvy Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) earned the lowest score, a 61%. Next-worst on the list in order were New Mexico State University, Cambridge University, Temple University, University of Virginia, University of Southern California, Boston University, University of California-Riverside, Louisiana State University, and University of Georgia.

In the number one slot of the top 10 Colleges with the best security posture -- an A grade with 97% or higher -- was a community college, Merced Community College in California, with a 98.7% score, followed by Concordia College, Adams State University, Centre College, Henry Ford Community College, University of North Alabama, Golden Gate University, University of Idaho, Gannon University, and Pepperdine University.

SecurityScorecard studied universities with 1,000 or more public IP addresses and graded their security posture based on the reputation of their IP addresses, Web application security on their public-facing apps, DNS health, and network security, including whether they generate bot traffic from infected machines in their networks. Data gathered from SecurityScorecard's sensor-based network is then analyzed by the company's analysis tools, and scored. The firm also studies so-called "hacker chatter" in underground forums about the organizations in question.

Big-name, high-profile schools had some of the lowest scores, the study found. "The strongest security seem to be lesser-known institutions," says Alex Heid, chief research officer at SecurityScorecard. "It could be an indication that they are not as heavily targeted. A lot of the information we pull …  is related to malware infections and exposures to botnets."

"We're able to see open ports that are allowing external Internet traffic," for example, he says. "We have large datasets from massive Internet scans to show what ports and institutions" are exposed, he says.

Several large universities have publicly disclosed breaches in the past few months: in May, Penn State said Chinese hackers over a two-year campaign had infiltrated its College of Engineering systems, and in June, Harvard University announced that its Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Central Administration systems were breached, but that no personal or research information had been compromised. Even so, Harvard warned that the attackers could have grabbed user credentials to then access computers and email accounts.

The University of Virginia (UVA) last month revealed that federal officials had found the school was hit by a cyberattack out of China. Two UVA employees whose work has ties to China appear to have been targeted in that attack.

Universities, given their inherent culture of openness and research -- as well as students bringing all types of their own devices to the network -- traditionally have been relatively soft targets for cybercriminals looking for lucrative financial information, as well as nation-states in search of potentially valuable research intelligence.

ThreatMetrix, a fraud prevention firm, warns that the education sector is ripe for hackers, especially with online testing and mobile devices increasingly being used by students. 

Other studies have highlighted poor security posture on campus: 33% of educational institutions earned an "F" from BitSight's recent ratings on botnet infections. Bot-infected machines are used to move laterally within a network, as well as for other nefarious purposes such as waging distributed denial-of-service attacks on other organizations.

Universities are 300% more likely to house malware in their networks than businesses or government agencies, OpenDNS says, based on data gathered from its network of 50 million users worldwide. That was a much bigger chasm than OpenDNS CTO Dan Hubbard says he expected to see. "You always hear about universities being more open than regular corporations and organizations, but these numbers were a little higher than we expected," Hubbard told Dark Reading when the report was published.

SecurityScorecard in its analysis did not correlate security grades and rankings with actual data breaches at the universities, however. Even so, breaches are mostly a given for higher-education institutions, Heid says: "Pretty much any university at this point is going to have some sort of breach."

One glaring reason: weak and reused passwords are an epidemic on campuses, and leaked university passwords were found circulating the hacker underground. "Across the board at all of them, there were weak passwords. Once a password is circulating, it's assumed at least one person uses the same one for everything. It's just a matter of the scale of the breach and whether it's publicly announced."

Cybercriminals and nation-states alike, are targeting college networks, he says. "Universities have always been stomping grounds for hackers," Heid says. "University facilities are using a lot of legacy systems and legacy software. And a lot of that is being leveraged by attackers."

It takes universities on average nearly a month -- 28 days -- to patch vulnerable applications, the study found.

As for MIT, SecurityScorecard says the school got a poor IP reputation rating, with an average of 1.7 days of malware infections -- a rate that is higher than 80% of the education industry itself.  "Our signals and sensors found 6 credentials for accounts associated with student and employee email discovered in 4 data leaks," the report says.

On the upside, MIT earned A's in web application security, DNS health, and endpoint security, according to SecurityScorecard.

MIT had not responded to press inquiries as of this posting. 

About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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