US research universities, among the most open and robust centers of information exchange in the world, are increasingly coming under cyberattack, most of it thought to be from China, with millions of hacking attempts weekly. Campuses are being forced to tighten security, constrict their culture of openness, and try to determine what has been stolen.
University officials concede that some of the hacking attempts have succeeded. They have declined to reveal specifics, other than those involving the theft of personal data like Social Security numbers. They acknowledge that they often do not learn of break-ins until much later, if ever, and that even after discovering the breaches they may not be able to tell what was taken.
“The attacks are increasing exponentially, and so is the sophistication, and I think it’s outpaced our ability to respond,” Educause cybersecurity program head Rodney Petersen said. Educause is a nonprofit alliance of schools and technology companies.
“So everyone’s investing a lot more resources in detecting this, so we learn of even more incidents we wouldn’t have known about before,” he said.
Detection was “probably our greatest area of concern, that the hackers’ ability to detect vulnerabilities and penetrate them without being detected has increased sharply,” said Tracy Mitrano, the director of information technology policy at Cornell University.
Like many of her counterparts, she said that while the largest number of attacks appeared to have originated in China, hackers have become adept at bouncing their work around the world.
Analysts can track where communications come from — a region, a service provider, sometimes even a user’s specific Internet address. However, hackers often route their penetration attempts through multiple computers, even multiple countries, and the targeted organizations rarely go to the effort and expense — often fruitless — of trying to trace the origins. US government officials, security experts, and university and corporate officials nonetheless say that China is clearly the leading source of efforts to steal information, but attributing individual attacks to specific people, groups or places is rare.
The increased threat of hacking has forced many universities to rethink the basic structure of their computer networks and their open style, though officials say they are resisting the temptation to create a fortress with high digital walls.
“A university environment is very different from a corporation or a government agency, because of the kind of openness and free flow of information you’re trying to promote,” Purdue University chief information security officer David Shaw said. “The researchers want to collaborate with others, inside and outside the university, and to share their discoveries.”
“Some universities no longer allow their professors to take laptops to certain countries, and that should be a standard practice,” said James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy group in Washington. “There are some countries, including China, where the minute you connect to a network, everything will be copied, or something will be planted on your computer in hopes that you’ll take that computer back home and connect to your home network, and then they’re in there. Academics aren’t used to thinking that way.”