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Police and University of the Highlands and Islands IT staff probe mass cyber attack

By Alasdair Fraser

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University of the Highlands and Islands, Inverness College. Picture: James MacKenzie.
University of the Highlands and Islands, Inverness College. Picture: James MacKenzie.

It is still not known whether a massive cyber attack on the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) compromised sensitive staff and student data.

Police Scotland are investigating what UHI described as a “very serious” security breach through the university’s network system and servers.

The Scottish Government is also offering extra support to the Highlands’ flagship educational provider, which has more than 40,000 full and part-time students, 501 academic staff and 187 non-academic employees.

UHI said the hacking incident – with staff and students first informed on Friday last week – had been contained after “tireless work” by IT staff over the weekend.

But a spokeswoman stressed it was not yet possible to say for certain that no personal data or financial details had been harvested by the perpetrators.

The spokeswoman said: “The incident has been contained and we are now working to minimise disruption to students and staff.

“We took precautions over the weekend to minimise impact on teaching and learning and our ICT teams have been working hard to ensure student-facing services, including our virtual learning environment Brightspace, are back up and running today.

“Due to our controls around staff and students’ personal data, we do not currently believe that personal data has been affected.”

The spokeswoman declined to say, given the ongoing police probe, when the attack began and could not reveal, at this stage, how costly it had been to the university.

She confirmed it was the first time UHI had been subject to a serious cyber attack, adding: “Our ICT teams prepare for such incidents and we have robust security measures in place.

“Staff and students were notified on Friday and are being regularly updated.

“We are being supported by a number of external agencies including the Scottish Government and Police Scotland.

“An investigation will follow this incident.

“As this incident is now the subject of a police investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

Students were reassured that they would not be penalised for any work they were unable to submit.

Monday's UHI-hosted International Women’s Day online event went ahead as planned.

A police spokesman said: “Police Scotland is investigating a suspected cyber incident at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

“We are liaising with the university and our enquiries, which are at an early stage, are ongoing.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "We are aware of the incident affecting UHI and understand that they are working with Police Scotland and other partners to manage this incident and mitigate any impact."

Inverness South councillor Ken Gowans, who teaches in visual communication and design, said he understood that most online classes had continued unaffected.

Speaking on Monday, Cllr Gowans said: “What I can say is I’ve had classes this morning and there has been no disruption.

“Brightspace is stand-alone and separate to the university system. It’s working fine and our emails are working fine.

“I had 20 or so students this morning and it was the first thing I mentioned, in case they hadn’t heard. Nobody even commented.

“The university has offered a lot of reassurance to students. They plan for such attacks and they have this in hand.”

The University and College Union (UCU) expressed concern on behalf of members and is seeking talks with UHI once the immediate crisis is over.

UCU Scotland official Mary Senior said: “UHI isn’t the first university to be targeted in this way, and is unlikely to be the last.

“This is an awful attack on any organisation, but particularly frustrating when the university, academic partners and their staff are working tirelessly to deliver for students in the pandemic.

“UHI will be working hard to resolve the issue and ensure it doesn’t happen in future.

“While the initial communication has focused on staff and students, the union would expect to be part of that discussion in the coming weeks and months.

“Meanwhile, our support is with colleagues in the university working to support students and colleagues at a difficult time.”

Highland News and Media’s IT specialist Jonathan Jarman was unable to comment on the specific incident, but explained there could be many and diverse motives.

He said: “There are different types of attacks and attackers, and different motives, all of which are not simple to identify especially so soon after an incident.

“Some hackers are just amateurs in it for the thrill of it, however some are criminal organisations who have more sinister motives, mainly to hold the stolen data to ransom.

“Then there are state-sponsored attacks which are designed to test out vulnerabilities in national security.”

Cyber attack disrupts University of the Highlands and Islands' systems and networks

University of the Highlands and Islands bosses tell students they don't think personal data has been compromised in 'very serious' cyber attack that 'will take time to fix'

UPDATE: University of the Highlands and Islands gets help from Police Scotland and Scottish Government to deal with ongoing cyber attack

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