Open University Deals with Over 1 Million Email Attacks over 9-Month Period

The Open University main reception. The OU is a public learning and research university, and one of the biggest universities in the UK

From January to September 2020, Open University was bombarded with over a million malicious emails. So far, the university has been able to block all attacks. The sheer volume, however, is concerning. Despite sophisticated security measures, just one email slipping through would be enough to cause havoc. As several education institutions have experienced recently.

Education Sector Prime Target for Cybercriminals

The Open University (OU), which is based in London, is the UK’s largest academic institution. It specializes in distance and online learning courses. It is also one of only three higher education institutions in the UK that gained accreditation in the US. Like other universities, the OU actively engages in research. Its Planetary and Space Science Research Institute is renowned for its involvement in space missions. For example, they are involved in the upcoming 2021 unmanned test flight to the Moon, under NASA’s Artemis program. Unfortunately, the nature of the OU, makes the educational institution a prime target for cybercriminals. This is also because the vast majority of their teaching takes place online.

Moreover, the number of ransomware attacks affecting schools and universities has increased rapidly since the start of Covid-19. And despite advice to the contrary, some institutions are left with no other option than to pay the ransoms. Earlier this year, for example, the University of Maastricht paid a 30 bitcoin ransom (€ 197,000 – $ 220,000) to retrieve highly sensitive data. And over the summer the University of California paid an even higher amount (116.4 bitcoin – $1.14 million), to get their research data back.

The situation is getting so bad, that the UK’s National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) decided to send out a security alert to the education sector. The alert details recent trends the NCSC has observed in ransomware attacks. “Due to the prevalence of these attacks, you should be sure to follow NCSC’s recently updated mitigating malware and ransomware guidance”, the alert reads. “This will help you put in place a strategy to defend against ransomware attacks, as well as planning and rehearsing ransomware scenarios, in the event that your defences are breached.”

1,191,312 Million Malicious Emails and Counting

Luckily for the OU, their systems proved to be sufficiently robust to fend off an impressive total of 1,191,312 emails between January and September 2020. This figure was revealed following a Freedom of Information (FoI) request by think tank Parliament Street.

The number of attacks was evenly spread throughout the nine-month period, averaging 132,368 malicious emails per month. These included spam, malware and phishing attacks. Fortunately, all of the malicious emails were blocked by OU’s servers and therefore did not reach their intended targets. The vast majority of the messages were purely spam. 6,804 emails were likely to have contained some form of malware and 16,452 were phishing emails.

To keep pace with the rapidly changing cybersecurity landscape, there are a number of relatively straightforward steps any company can take, regardless of their size, to help prevent an cybersecurity incident. Being aware of what risks exist, is half the battle. Then there are mitigating measures such as investing in cybersecurity, installing antivirus software (preferably with an anti-ransomware feature), creating secure back-ups and always installing operating system and software updates immediately as they come out.

IT communication specialist
Sandra has many years of experience in the IT and tech sector as a communication specialist. She's also been co-director of a company specializing in IT, editorial services and communications project management. For she follows relevant cybercrime and online privacy developments.