The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has issued a security alert to the education sector warning that cybercriminals are looking to target schools, colleges and universities with cyberattacks as students return after the summer.

The NCSC, which is a part of GCHQ, said it has issued the alert following a recent spike in ransomware attacks. Ransomware is a type of malware that locks the victim out of their files and network, demanding a payment – usually in cryptocurrency – to decrypt their files.

Newcastle University recently confirmed that its IT systems were taken offline by ransomware in August. Staff and students were told that they may lose access to IT accounts while the systems are repaired.

Around a similar time, Northumbria University also fell victim to a “cyber incident”. This saw exams cancelled and the university’s clearing hotline go down, the BBC reported.

The NCSC’s alert, called ‘Targeted ransomware attacks on the UK education by cyber criminals’, builds on previous advice for responding to attacks.

School cyberattack warning: “We will not hesitate to act”

“This criminal targeting of the education sector, particularly at such a challenging time, is utterly reprehensible,” said Paul Chichester, director of operations at the NCSC.

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“While these have been isolated incidents, I would strongly urge all academic institutions to take heed of our alert and put in place the steps we suggest, to help ensure young people are able to return to education undisrupted.

“We are absolutely committed to ensuring UK academia is as safe as possible from cyber threats, and will not hesitate to act when that threat evolves.”

David Corke, director of education and skills policy at the Association of Colleges, said:

“As the last six months have shown us, it has never been more important for colleges to have the right digital infrastructure in order to be able to protect their systems and keep learning happening, whatever the circumstance.

“This needs a whole college approach and for a focus wider than just systems, it needs to include supporting leaders, teachers and students to recognise threats, mitigate against them, and act decisively when something goes wrong.

“This guidance will prove incredibly useful for colleges to ensure that they can do just that.”

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