Educational institutions are being targeted by cybercriminals for all manner of nefarious purposes: To obtain the personal information of staff and students for identity theft and tax fraud, to steal university funds, and to steal university research.

University research theft is an easy income stream for hackers. Research papers can command high prices on the black market and are highly sought after by nation state governments and businesses.

This fall, the UK’s Daily Telegraph revealed Iranian hackers were selling research papers that had been stolen from top British Universities including Oxford and Cambridge. Several Farsi websites were identified advertising free access to university research papers, including an offer of university research theft to order. Provide the details and, for a price, the research be found and sent through an encrypted channel.

There were papers for sale on highly sensitive subjects such as nuclear research and cybersecurity defenses. Even less sensitive subjects are valuable to foreign businesses. The research could help them gain a competitive advantage at the expense of universities. In the case of Iran, universities are being used to gain access to Western research that would otherwise be off limits due to current sanctions.

It is not just British universities that are being targeted. The hackers are infiltrating university research databases the world over, and it is not just Iranian hackers that have tapped into this income stream. University research theft is a growing problem.

How Are University Databases Breached?

One of the main ways access to research databases is gained is through phishing – A simple method of attack that requires no programming know-how and no malicious software. All that is required is a little time and the ability to create a website.

Phishing emails are sent to staff and students that request a visit a webpage where they are required to enter their credentials to academic databases. If the credentials are disclosed, the phishers have the same access rights as the user. The phishers then download papers or advertise and wait for requests to roll in. They then just search the database, download the papers, and provide them to their customers.

Various social engineering techniques are used to entice users to click the links. Requests are sent instructing the user that they need to reset their password, for instance. The web pages they are directed to are exact copies of the sites used by the universities. Apart from the URL, the websites appear perfectly genuine.

Unfortunately, once credentials have been obtained it can be difficult for universities to discover there has been a breach since genuine login credentials are used to access the research databases.

How to Prevent University Research Theft

No single cybersecurity solution will protect universities from all phishing attacks. The key to mounting an effective defense against phishing is layered phishing defenses.

  • The primary cybersecurity solution to implement is an advanced spam filter to ensure as many phishing emails as possible are blocked and messages containing malicious attachments do not reach inboxes. SpamTitan for instance, blocks more than 99.9% of spam and phishing messages and 100% of known malware. Even advanced spam filtering solutions will not block all phishing emails, so additional controls are required to deal with the <0.1% of phishing emails that are delivered.
  • While a web filter can be used to block access to categories of web content such as pornography, it will also block access to known malicious websites: Websites used for phishing and those that host malware.
  • End user security awareness training is also essential. End users are the last line of defense and will remain a weak link unless training is provided to teach them how to identify malicious emails. Staff and students should be conditioned to report threats to their security teams to ensure action can be taken and to alert first responders when the university is under attack.
  • Multi-factor authentication should also be implemented. If credentials are stolen and used to access a database, email account, computer, or server, from an unfamiliar device or location, a further form of authentication is required before access is granted.
  • Universities should have security monitoring capabilities. Logs of access attempts and should generated and network and user activity should be monitored for potential compromises.

For further information on anti-phishing defenses and cybersecurity solutions that can help prevent university research theft, contact the TitanHQ team today.