Personal Security

Schools are being targeted by cyber criminals: 6 ways to shore up online defences

In 2017 the Independent Schools’ Bursars Association (ISBA), which supports over 1,000 senior management staff in schools, stated that cyberattacks in schools can no longer be considered ‘isolated incidents’. ISBA’s Chief Exec David Woodgate went on to say that he is concerned that fraudsters are ‘one step ahead’.

He is absolutely right. While schools lag behind universities in their approach to cyber defence, cyber criminals are constantly evolving and refining their skills. Unlike most people employed in the education system, they do not have day jobs to distract their focus. So what can school authorities do to protect against such ingenious criminal minds? Here are six important things to consider.

1. Accept responsibility

Firstly, school boards must embrace the responsibility. A Department for Education spokesperson recently reiterated that ‘schools are directly responsible for the security of all digital information they collate, store and retain.’ This does not, however, simply refer to the IT department but should extend to the board of governors, the school administrators, the staff, the pupils and the parents. Above all, however, it is the senior leadership that is responsible for safeguarding in schools and, as such, cyber security should be on the agenda at every meeting of school governors and senior teams.

2. Know your system

Knowing precisely what hardware and software is being used on the networks is important but senior leadership should also ensure that configuration changes are authorised, documented and implemented appropriately. It is crucial that only approved users can make changes. Software updates and security patches should also be implemented quickly, and systems monitored for unusual activity which could be an indication of an intruder. Criminal incidents should be reported to the police. Breaches must be reported to the relevant statutory authorities within 72 hours under the terms of GDPR.

3. Control user profiles

Access to sensitive information should only be given to specific individuals. Wherever possible, the ability to share information should also be limited to these specified people. Where individuals are provided with access, their privileges should be managed, and they should be provided with the minimum level of access required to do their job. When staff leave, their access should be revoked promptly.

4. Protect the system

Strong firewalls and internet gateways should be in place to protect school networks and these should be constantly monitored and regularly tested.

It is essential to ensure that antivirus software and security mechanisms are up to date and that protocols for frequent password changes and the use of multifactor authentication for sensitive information is enforced.  This means that if a criminal does obtain access to a system, their progress is stalled by encryption tools.

It is not just the internal system which requires protection. Consider the physical security of a system: the hard drives, internet routers, servers and other devices on which data can be stored. School equipment can be targeted by thieves during holiday periods so any device holding sensitive data should be encrypted and stored in an appropriate security cabinet constructed for the purpose.

It is also advisable to limit the use of public-cloud-based services such as OneDrive and Dropbox as well as the widespread use of portable storage devices such as SD cards and memory sticks but, if there is no alternative, such mechanisms must use strong encryption and robust key management procedures.

5. Invest in expertise

The school bursar is not expected to be solely responsible for every aspect of financial planning. Professional accountancy firms provide additional resource and support. In a similar way, those responsible for a school’s data protection require support at both the strategic and practical levels from industry specialists.

6. Be proactive

Rather than wait for a cybercriminal to test the school’s defences, be proactive: conduct regular penetration testing on the system. When done correctly, this is not an off-the-shelf exercise, but employs a synergy of automated and manual testing to deliver the best results. A specialist consultancy will be able to scope the exercise and conduct the testing in a cost-effective and non-disruptive manner.

Red Team engagement can prove highly useful to further investigate vulnerabilities that have been identified. By using simulated exercises around social engineering, all staff can be briefed on best practise, and their role in the team, should an incident arise. The intelligence gained from these exercises means that a proactive and robust defence can be developed, protecting your data as well as your reputation.

To discuss improving your cyber resilience, contact the SRM team on 03450 21 21 51

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Or read more:

How phishing scams are getting schools in deep water

Cyber resilience: it’s a board level issue

The key to GDPR is common sense

Coinhive attacks and how to prepare for the (almost) inevitable

This week’s report that more than 5,000 websites, including that of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) have been hacked, shows that it really can happen to anyone. Other affected websites where malware took over the processing power of their user’s devices include the Student Loans Company, the council website for Manchester City, Camden and Croydon and the home page of the United States Courts. Although the initial reaction may be one of schadenfreude – pleasure in someone else’s misfortune – a more measured response would be to realise and accept that hackers are now so ingenious and creative that everyone, including those with top class cyber defence, is likely to be subject to attack at some point.

This latest hack involved a piece of cryptocurrency mining malware, called Coinhive, which ran in the background while the webpages of the hacked organisations were open. This forced visitors’ computers to run the mining programme which can then be used to gain small fractions of cryptocurrency from each victim.

So, how can we protect ourselves? The honest answer is that we can’t fully. What we can do, however, is to be prepared for the probability that our systems will be attacked at some point and to reduce the potential impact this will have. Developing a robust Incident Response protocol is an important start and here a Retained Forensic (RF) service will be of immense benefit. With a detailed knowledge of your systems, an RF team is able to mitigate the damage swiftly and effectively.

Damage limitation is crucial but, in the long term, building additional layers of security into your system’s architecture is also key. We need to ensure we are not giving away information without meaning to. We should also consider our defensive architecture but it is important that we balance the need for security with the practical requirement for our systems to be functional and easily navigable.

Achieving this balance is a complex issue. SRM’s VirtualCISO (vCISOtm) service can resource and support the incumbent CISO or DPO in managing this task. From providing expert strategic guidance to taking on the full CISO role, our vCISOtm team has many years’ experience in providing robust yet agile defences. We work with our clients across a range of services including Incident Response, Retained PFI, Digital Forensic Investigation and Security Breach, Incident Management and Containment Support.

To find our more, visit our website or contact Mark Nordstrom on 03450 21 21 51 or

Can Decision Cycles help us maintain the initiative in cyberspace?

As our world gets increasingly complex we must choose the levers we use to influence it with care. One way to look at this is through the lens of decision cycles.

For those not familiar with this concept, decision cycles are the cyclic process through which we perceive a stimulus, understand its implications, decide on a response and implement that decision. (There are a number of models and references). Simplistically, if we can make effective decisions quicker than our opponents, then we will, theoretically, hold the initiative.

The decision cycle lens is a useful one for those responsible for making decisions about cyber related issues as it throws any dangerous policies into harsh relief.

Most businesses work in a world where their policies, and here I’m talking about management intent rather than paperwork, refresh on a 12 month cycle based on standards which tend to refresh on a 5 year cycle. I note many will be smiling ruefully at this optimistic view!

In today’s information environment many of our risks are changing on a much smaller (faster) cycle, measured in days and weeks rather than months. Our operational tempo is defined not just by the speed of change, but by the way that the speed of change is accelerating.

This presents us with an exciting challenge; if we rely on static policy and processes – and many organisations still do – then we must expect our adversaries to outmanoeuvre us, and our risks to out evolve.

Where does this take us? Decision Cycle theory gives us a number of areas where we can hard wire agility into our business systems.
* Firstly, we can ensure that our warning, reporting, alarm and monitoring systems (Technical and Procedural) are tuned to report those events that most concern us.
* Secondly, we can ensure that we fully understand our own vulnerabilities and sensitivities, and the impact that adverse events will have on our operations. We can test and exercise those scenarios that most concern us. We can challenge our own assumptions. This will enable us to understand impacts and qualify outcomes more quickly.
* Thirdly, we do need to understand our own options, their limitations, and review these on a regular basis. This will enable us to make decisions more quickly.
* Finally, we need to ensure that our implementation of these decisions are well planned and where possible, practiced. We must also review effectiveness at every level and make changes that are required at any part of the cycle.

All of this would seem to be common sense… though is often not done in practice. There are many reasons for this, ranging from technical inertia to process stagnation. The important thing is that we acknowledge and track our challenges – then we can mitigate the changing risks.

If we are able to design agility into our business systems and processes, and if we tune our organisations so that we can take a proactive posture, then we can keep the initiative. The simple decision cycle model then gives us an easy way to challenge our posture on a regular basis to establish where and when change is required.

This is not rocket science, but many of us do seem to find it surprisingly hard. This simple model is one way of stepping forward and bringing effect to bear in our defence.

Managing Director of SRM, Tom F is a regular contributor to the SRM blog.

Client files on home computers must be encrypted

Barrister fined by ICO for data protection breach

A recent ruling by the Information Commissioner’s Office highlights the responsibility of professionals to safeguard client data held on their home computers. Because while work systems are usually well-protected, oversights on non-work systems can put clients’ data at risk. The ICO has just released details of a penalty imposed on a barrister who had created work documents on her home computer but had not encrypted these files.

The case for the prosecution: a lady barrister held sensitive client information on a desktop which was also used by her husband. Although the computer was password protected the files were unencrypted. This ignored the guidance issued in January 2013 by the Bar Council and her Chambers that a computer used by family members or others may in addition require encryption.

The barrister’s husband updated software on the shared desktop and to back up the files temporarily uploaded them to an online directory to back them up. He assumed the documents were safe.

However, the documents were visible to an internet search engine and 15 documents were cached and indexed. Six of the 15 documents contained ‘confidential and highly sensitive’ information relating to clients involved in proceedings. Although the husband immediately removed the files from the online directory and the internet service provider removed the cache the next day, the ICO found that the barrister contravened the provisions of the Data Protection Act.

The contravention was considered to have run from the date of the January 2013 Bar Council guidance to 5 January 2016 when remedial action was taken. The files contained confidential and highly sensitive information relating to between 200 and 250 individuals.

Due to the number of individuals affected and the sensitive nature of the information, the ICO consider the contravention sufficient to cause ‘distress’ to the clients and that there were justifiable concerns that the information would be further disseminated, ‘even though those concerns did not actually materialise’.

The Commissioner considered that, in her defence, she did not intend to contravene the DPA, and her actions were a ‘serious oversight’ rather than deliberate intent to ignore or bypass the DPA, she should have realised that there was a risk. Taking all this into account the Commissioner decided on a penalty of £1,000.

When the new Data Protection Bill and the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) come into effect in May 2018 the ICO will have the right to impose significantly larger fines. The scale will be much higher than under current legislation. At the moment the theoretical maximum the ICO can impose is £500,000 but under GDPR it will be 20 million Euros. This equates to a 79 times increase. Theoretically, therefore, the barrister could have been fined up to £79,000 if the contravention had occurred next year.

So while organisations are working toward the new compliance, it is important that individuals also realise that the same principles apply to home computers. Security protocols should be clearly outlined in every corporate strategy and be made known to all individuals working remotely.

SRM has operated in the information security environment since 2002 and our consultants are skilled at performing security assessments and managing strategic compliance projects. Our GDPR team is GCHQ trained and works with clients to achieve all types of ongoing compliance.

US statistics warn of new trends in cybercrime: how a retained PFI can mitigate the risks

Statistics provide useful evidence of the trends developing within the world of information security. Figures compiled from reported attacks in the United States for July 2017 give us a breakdown of attacks sector by sector, providing some useful insight into the minds of cyber attackers and their motivation. As we all know, cybercrime is international and these trends are likely to be reflected in the UK in the coming months. The key figures from this latest research show an increasing trend towards attacks on individuals and an increase in the number of attacks motivated by crime.

In fact, the number of cyberattacks on individuals in the US doubled between June and July 2017. In June 14.1 per cent of recorded attacks were targeted at single individuals but in July this figure had increased to 27.5 per cent. Of course, this still means that other sectors account for nearly three quarters of all cyberattacks. Industry (26.1%), Government (8.7%), Healthcare (8.7%) and Finance (5.8%) were the other major targets.

As for motivation, that 84.1 per cent of attacks in July 2017 were motivated by cybercrime is no great surprise. The fact that this particular motivation has increased by 15.3 per cent since June, however, is worthy of note. Rogue individuals with the requisite skill set have long been attracted by financial reward, yet in the past Cyber Espionage, Cyber Warfare and Hacktivism figures more significantly in these statistics. So theft is on the increase.

What does this mean for UK businesses? Given that the trend is toward an increase in crimes on individuals it may not be obvious. But we have noticed a correlation between an escalation in individual attacks and a heightened awareness among the business community. This is perhaps due to the power of the media but also to the even greater power of word-of-mouth. Because when a businessman becomes aware that someone they know has had their account hacked, he or she will be more likely to look to their business’ online security.

As far as we are concerned, any news of this type is helpful. Because the fact is that cybercrime is on the increase. Whether it is the slow and subtle syphoning off of funds from an unsuspecting retailer or a massive much publicised hack demanding ransoms like the one inflicted on HBO, theft is nowadays more likely to be an online activity than a physical one.

If an incident occurs, swift action is required to minimise the impact of an individual attack. But prevention is always better than cure. That is why increased awareness is always a good thing. The more businesses that retain an information security consultant to ensure their defences are robust, the fewer will be hacked. Those who trade online also benefit from a PCI Forensic Investigator (PFI) to protect their card payments.

SRM offers a full range of services to protect the online environment. Using a range of tools from penetration testing to vulnerability assessments and network security testing, we enhance risk mitigation and ensure that the online environment of our clients is as robust as it is possible to be. We also provide a bespoke retained PFI service, working proactively through regular strategic reviews to develop enhanced risk mitigation. Anticipating the potential risk areas for attack, we provide highly-targeted cost-effective solutions.

Given the constantly evolving world of cybercrime and the ingenuity of hackers, attacks can and do happen, however. But with a retained PFI already familiar with a company’s systems, remediation is rapid and disruption minimal.


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