Are Arizona Colleges, Universities Vulnerable To Cyber Attacks?

February 20, 2014

The Brookings Institution is pushing for stronger cyber security. The group held a panel discussion on the issue Wednesday. It happened at the same day the University of Maryland announced a security breach and only a few months after the Maricopa Community College District reported it could have been targeted by hackers.  

More than two-million students, staff and faculty at the Maricopa Community Colleges may have had troves of valuable personal information stolen from the district’s computer network last April.  The situation raised concerns about the vulnerability of computer systems at all of the colleges and universities across the state. 

Scott Talboom is director of Technical Advancement at Coconino Community College in Flagstaff.

“No one likes to see what happened to Maricopa and I think that all colleges and universities are on guard and doing the best that we can to make sure that we stay one step ahead of the hackers," Talboom said.

It took the Maricopa College District seven months before officials announced the possible breach.  So far, it has agreed to spend up to $14 million for computer system upgrades and to provide free credit checks for staff and students. 

Getting colleges to respond to questions about cyber security wasn’t too easy.  Mike Lange is a spokesman at Yavapai College in Prescott and he said even doing this interview could jeopardize cyber security at his school. 

"We don’t want to paint a target on our back because if you talk about ‘oh yes…we’ve done this…we’ve done that…’and that information becomes public then it’s like trying to get someone to overcome what you’ve done,” said Lange.

 This fear of hackers has become a concern for the Obama Administration too.  In 2009, the president made a White House speech outlining his plan to strengthen internet security for individuals, corporations, government and colleges. 

“Cyber space is real and so are the risks that come with it.  It’s the great  irony of the information age.  The very technologies that empower us to share technology and build…also empower those who would disrupt and destroy," Obama said.

 This week the Washington think tank Brookings Institution urged Internet companies and stakeholders to move faster to adopt the president’s recommendations to minimize cyber risks. 

Terry Kurzynski is a founder of the Chicago-based cyber security firm Haylock. He said although colleges are doing their best to curb cyber attacks under tight budgets, they’ll always be targeted by hackers because they have large networks full of data, and are slow to change because of deep bureaucracy.

“They have immature risk management and this is probably the number one thing that they can work on right away is understanding and prioritizing what they need to do and where their risk is," Kurzynski said.

He urged Arizona colleges to do more training and conduct more thorough background checks of IT personnel. He said the schools also should do more encryption of sensitive information to keep the hackers confused. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: KJZZ is licensed to Rio Salado College, a member of the Maricopa County Community College District.