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Tuesday, 18 June 2019 08:50

Attackers use phishing to gain access to ACU staff data Featured

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Attackers use phishing to gain access to ACU staff data Image by Nikolay Georgiev from Pixabay

The Australian Catholic University has been hit by a data breach, with the attacker(s) using a phishing email to trick users into revealing their credentials on a fake ACU login page.

The ACU has three public websites, with the main one running on Linux, while two others, which allow staff to log in, run on Windows Server 2008.

The breach was discovered on 22 May, the university's acting vice-chancellor, Dr Stephen Weller, said in a statement, adding that a number of staff email accounts and some University systems had been compromised.

iTWire asked the ACU for further details on which systems were compromised and also pointed out that two systems — staffspace.acu.edu.au and staffconnect.acu.edu.au — appeared to be running on Windows Server 2008 which has stopped receiving service packs from Microsoft.

In a response on Tuesday evening, an ACU spokesperson said: "All of our servers are operating within service agreements and are in support from Microsoft as per our internal audits. Processes are well in hand to ensure that any legacy servers are migrated before that support and security updates come to an end.”

Emails, calendar details and bank account details of the staff in question were stolen by the attacker(s).

The ACU is the second university to report a breach this month. On 4 June, the Australian National University announced a massive data breach with personal details of staff, students and visitors over the past 19 years exposed. That infiltration took place in 2018.

Dr Weller said the ACU had taken the following actions after the breach was discovered:

  • contacted each person identified as being directly affected;
  • reset the accounts of those whose accounts had been breached;
  • notified ACU’s bank about potentially fraudulent activity;
  • notified the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA);
  • notified the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC); and
  • alerted the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network (ACORN).

The ACU has about 35,000 students in seven campuses locally and an international campus in Rome. There is one campus in Melbourne on Victoria Parade and two campuses in Sydney at Strathfield and North Sydney.

Commenting on the incident, Adam Biviano, senior manager for solution architecture at identity and access management software company ForgeRock, said: "Once again, the education sector finds itself in the crosshairs of determined cyber criminals. Universities are an alluring target, given the sheer amount of data records they store and manage.

"In this instance, the data breach originated from a phishing attack and comes a mere fortnight after the Australian National University revealed it also fell victim to a hack where a significant amount of student and staff data was accessed.

"With today’s threat landscape in constant evolution, organisations need to consider context aware intelligent authentication options which are stronger than passwords without the additional friction of conventional multi-factor systems."

Alvin Rodrigues, senior cyber strategist at security outfit Forcepoint, said: “This is the second data breach attack on a top Australian education institute in this month alone, and highlights the fallibility of employees when it comes to safeguarding against vicious cyber attacks.

"Organisations today need to rethink their security posture, and look at it from an inside-out approach. In today’s mobile and cloud-first business environment users and data must be at the centre of security-by-design thinking.

"By taking a behaviour-centric approach to security and creating a baseline understanding of all 'normal' behaviour of digital identities on a network, it can show when a user isn’t who they pretend to be, thus enabling faster identification and classification of outlier and risky behaviour.

"If a digital identity is compromised, human-centric security can help identify deviation from its 'normal' behavioural patterns and trigger an alert that security administrators can react to quickly, as well as a create relevant automated enforcement response based on that identity’s elevated risk score.”

Another security professional, Tyler Moffitt, a senior threat research analyst at Webroot, said the education sector was a hotspot for attacks, for the simple reason that cyber security budgets and IT staff strength tended to be lacking in numbers.

"The ACU breach reflects how phishing remains the simplest and most effective means of infiltration," he said. "User education should never be under-estimated and is arguably the most cost-effective approach to improving the security posture of any organisation - especially against phishing attacks.

"Employees and users of a university’s IT systems must be educated on the risks associated with phishing, with regular training and phishing simulations essential to ensuring robust security.

"Fundamentally, organisations must realise that cyber criminals only need to find one hole in their defences to do serious damage, and that usually lands on the weakest link – the uneducated end user.”

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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