Information security system attempts to protect UT from cyber-attack

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Concerns about sensitive personal and business information in cyberspace are growing — and colleges and universities are no exception.

Mandiant, an American cybersecurity firm, released a detailed report in late February “exposing a multi-year espionage campaign by one of the largest ‘Advanced Persistent Threat’ groups.” The group hacked 141 companies from the United States, stealing many terabytes of compressed data.

The report indicates hackers also targeted two higher education institutions, whose names were not released for confidentiality concerns. 

Cam Beasley, Chief Information Security Officer at Information Technology Services, said along with its own security program, ITS also uses traditional anti-virus and anti-spyware software, host-based intrusion detection, browser security controls, password management tools and encryptions of various sorts.

“In most cases our security monitoring tools and services, many of which we’ve developed, help us detect such events,” Beasley said. 

One of the largest data theft instances that occurred at the University happened in spring 2003 when thousands of names and Social Security numbers were illegally accessed and downloaded to a personal computer. University officials said the discovery of the security breach occurred on March 2 and three days later a search warrant was issued and a computer and related materials were confiscated. Prompt action by the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Secret Service secured the stolen data before they could be misused or further disseminated, according to University officials.

“Attacks that put sensitive University information at risk are historically the most significant,” Beasley said. “Some steps [after a possibly hacking] include determining whether law enforcement is likely to become involved and if so, preserving evidence, containing or eradicating the problem and fostering an organized and professional response to the incident based on severity level, and type and scope of the threat.”

Lance Hayden, adjunct assistant professor in the School of Information, said figuring out how to protect intellectual property and other sensitive business information while also encouraging collaboration in product development is going to be complex, difficult work.

“It will take us years, maybe decades to get it all sorted,” Hayden said, “But that’s okay, or at least not abnormal. Look at the growth of any disruptive technology from weapons to the printing press to the telegraph/telephone to the Internet. All of them created as many new challenges for society as benefits, changing and shaping their environments dramatically.”

Protecting personal sensitive information is a major concern for Government and Economics sophomore Travis Adams. 

“I try not to upload sensitive things,” he said. “I have different passwords for all of my important accounts so that if you break into one you can’t break into all of them.”

For UT faculty and students, user awareness and vigilance is key to protection from a cyber-attack, Beasley said.

“User awareness training is required for all faculty and staff,” Beasley said. “Be more vigilant with their browsing habits, keep browser and browser plug-ins updated on a regular basis and encrypt portable devices [such as] laptops, iPhones and thumb drives. A rational distrust of most things can often be your best defense.”

Published on March 25, 2013 as "Hacking report highlights need for greater cyber protection".