ITS drawing attention to campus cyber-security

There is no simple way to detect or identify them. They cannot be seen or heard, leave no physical evidence behind and hide their tracks through a complex web of compromised computers. When it comes to computer hackers, Jeff Gardiner, Western’s Central Information Security Officer, and his team face a daunting challenge – every moment of every day.

But with the increasing help of cyber-smart faculty, staff and students, the challenge can be met.

“We live in a digitally connected world and this digital connection touches nearly all aspects of everyone’s daily life, whether we realize it or not,” Gardiner said.

Western Information and Technology Services (ITS) has designated Oct. 17-21 as Cyber Security Awareness Week on campus, designed to engage and educate both the public and private sector by raising awareness about cyber-security.

“Western is participating in this effort by hoping to provide Western’s community with the tools and resources needed to stay safe online. We’re calling this ‘Becoming Cyber Smart.’ By increasing the resiliency of our community, we’re hoping to reduce the possibility of cyber-incidents occurring. But when they do occur, having a cyber-smart community reduces the scope of the damage caused by the incident.”

The potential harm to universities hit home earlier this year when the University of Calgary paid a demanded $20,000 after a ‘ransomware’ attack on its staff and faculty computer systems. Ransomware is computer malware that installs covertly on a victim’s computer and holds that computer’s files hostage until a ransom payment is made to release it.

Typically, the trick is to get a user to visit an infected site – referred to as a ‘drive-by-download’ – or open an attachment containing malware itself.

“The most common way to attack an information system is to attack the people who use the system,” Gardiner said.

With the enormous number of systems on campus, it is difficult to put an exact number on attacks the university faces in a year. But they add up. On average, spam constitutes about 85 per cent of the university email received on a daily basis.

While most phishing attempts – such as ‘You’ve won the lottery’ or a ‘Nigerian prince has funds to transfer to you’ – are no longer fooling many, Gardiner reminds the university community to protect their digital identities by never giving out usernames or passwords – even to ITS.

“Simply knowing the threat is the greatest way to combat this risk,” he said. “Emails from unknown senders with attachments or questionable sites that redirect you without your permission are sure-fire clues that something funny may be going one.”

Jeff Grieve, Executive Director of ITS, added cyber-security needs to be top of mind for all members of the campus community. It is part of the message underlying the branding of Western’s Cyber Security education campaign #ProtectU.

“Western, like other universities, is subject to a relentless myriad of threats that are escalating in both frequency and sophistication,” he said.

In order for Western to properly protect its most important information assets, the university is undertaking a multi-pronged, cyber-security strategy involving targeted investments in IT security technologies, IT security policy improvements and ongoing cyber-security education and awareness programming.

While they may sound like a “broken record’,” Grieve stressed awareness campaigns continue to be, unfortunately, a requirement at Western

“The education and awareness component of our strategy will be crucial to our success,” he said. “We need to institute a culture where our campus community members recognize and embrace their roles in helping to protect each other, and our university campus information systems, from these threats.”

Gardiner added while it’s easy to just say “use your common sense,” even that is sometimes not enough.

“Add to common sense risk awareness,” he said. “The two together are a perfect recipe for avoiding problems.

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LOG ON AND LEARN

Western Information and Technology Services (ITS) has designated Oct. 17-21 as Cyber Security Awareness Week on campus, designed to engage and educate both the public and private sector by raising awareness about cyber-security.

Find out more about how you can protect yourself at cybersmart.uwo.ca.