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Managed Services vs Staff Augmentation: A Comprehensive Comparison

In the dynamic landscape of information technology (IT), organizations are constantly seeking ways to bolster their technical capabilities. One of these strategies includes staff augmentation – a model that allows companies to ‘borrow’ IT professionals from service providers or independent contractors. This approach helps fill immediate skill gaps and address short-term project needs.

Understanding Staff Augmentation: Short-Term Benefits and Long-Term Drawbacks

To clarify, staff augmentation is akin to an on-demand service. If you need extra hands for a specific project or to replace a key member temporarily, you can hire external resources. These professionals are paid by the hour and can be let go with a reasonable notice period. This method provides a simple cost model and quick scalability, all with minimal disruption to your existing IT team’s structure.

Take the case of ‘TechyCo,’ a fictional tech company. They once needed a team of data scientists for a six-month project. Rather than hiring full-time employees for a short-term requirement, they used staff augmentation, which proved cost-effective and efficient.

However, problems may arise if staff augmentation transforms into a long-term strategy. This model could lead to what we call ‘staff creep’ – a gradual increase in augmented staff over time. It could also create an ‘unrecognized head count’ that falls under the organization’s radar. To put it simply, you might end up with more augmented staff than you initially planned, which can inflate costs.

Also, contractors added as high-cost permanent staff may lead to challenges such as loss of knowledge control and business continuity. Without any obligation to deliver specific outcomes or transfer knowledge, significant organizational risk may build up over time.

Managed Services: A Strategy for Long-Term Growth

An alternative approach to long-term external sourcing is the managed services model, which can be compared to outsourcing. Here, you’re not hiring individuals, but contracting a company to deliver a specified outcome for a predetermined price.

The managed services model promotes value-based planning. It’s not just about hiring a skillset; it’s about ensuring an outcome, thus shifting the delivery risk to the provider. This model is usually more cost-effective overall and helps maintain operational continuity.

To illustrate, ‘TechyCo’ started a new project with a two-year timeline. Rather than using staff augmentation, they transitioned to a managed services model, engaging a service provider to deliver the entire project. This shift allowed them to focus on their core competencies while the managed service provider took care of the project’s technical aspects.

Overcoming Boundaries to Adapt Managed Services: 

Even with its benefits, some organizations hesitate to adopt the managed services model due to concerns about losing operational control. However, it’s important to remember that outsourcing doesn’t equate to relinquishing control. You can maintain control through well-defined contracts and strong relationship management.

Despite the initial complexity, shifting from staff augmentation to managed services can result in significant economic and service value. It’s about focusing on outcomes instead of individual skill sets. This shift ensures cost predictability and puts the delivery risk on the service provider.

Unlocking Additional Benefits of Managed Services:

The managed services model offers additional advantages. It provides a clear link between service, business needs, and cost, shifting the focus from resource utilization to optimizing the cost/service balance. It also offers scalability based on business demand and operational performance metrics tied to process excellence and outcomes.

Whether you choose staff augmentation or managed services depends on your specific needs, resources, and long-term goals. As a rule of thumb, staff augmentation works well for short-term, specific projects, while managed services offer a better approach for long-term and outcome-oriented projects. Understanding these models can help you make informed decisions strategically.

David McLaughlin

CEO

About Columbia Advisory Group

Founded in Dallas in 2012, Columbia Advisory Group LLC (CAG) is an established IT consulting firm renowned for delivering cost-effective, meaningful, and practical IT solutions that solve complex business problems. Our seasoned teams offer comprehensive insight across diverse regulatory and economic environments, providing unbiased, straightforward analysis and recommendations. We pride ourselves on our deep understanding of IT while remaining software and hardware-agnostic. Regardless of your organization’s growth trajectory or economic landscape, we at CAG are adept at adapting to your unique needs and complexity, offering tailored solutions to drive your success.

Contact us at info@columbiaadvisory.com.

Data Governance: Get Your Data in Line With Columbia Advisory Group

In our modern digital world, data is like gold. It helps organizations make smarter business decisions, improve how they work, and better understand their customers. But as we gather more and more data, it’s vital to have a good plan in place to manage it. That’s where data governance comes in. It’s all about making sure your data is available, useful, accurate, and safe. This involves making clear who does what, setting up rules and processes, and making sure your data is high quality and secure. Let’s look at why data governance is so important. 

Why Bother With Data Governance?

Better Data Quality 

One big win from data governance is that it helps you get better data. When you manage your data well, it’s easier to make sure your data is accurate, consistent, and up to date. This means you can make decisions based on data you can trust.

Improved Data Security

Data security is getting more important every day, especially with the rise of cyber-attacks and data breaches. Data governance helps you protect your data by setting up rules about who can do what, putting in processes for using data, and setting up measures to keep data safe from unauthorized access or theft. By having a good data governance plan, you can lower the risk of data breaches and keep sensitive information safe.

Data is Available When Needed

Data governance also makes sure that data is easy to get to for those who need it. When you manage your data well, it’s easier to look after, which means it’s there when you need it. This helps improve decision-making and efficiency, as staff can get the information they need faster.

Stay on the Right Side of the Law

Lastly, data governance helps you comply with data protection laws, like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). These laws require strong data protection measures, and by using data governance, you can make sure you’re following these laws and avoid any expensive fines.

How Columbia Advisory Group gets it Right 

Columbia Advisory Group (CAG) knows how important data governance is and has put a great strategy in place to make sure its data is high quality, secure, and available when needed. We’ve made a plan that lays out who does what and provides guidelines for using data. This makes sure the data they use is accurate, consistent, and safe.  CAG has also used technology to help manage and look after their data. We use data management and analytics platforms, as well as security solutions that protect their data from unauthorized access or theft. By using these tools, CAG makes sure their data is managed in a way that’s effective and efficient. So, why not check us out and get your data in line?

Tim Taylor

Practice Lead

About Columbia Advisory Group

Founded in Dallas in 2012, Columbia Advisory Group LLC (CAG) is an established IT consulting firm renowned for delivering cost-effective, meaningful, and practical IT solutions that solve complex business problems. Our seasoned teams offer comprehensive insight across diverse regulatory and economic environments, providing unbiased, straightforward analysis and recommendations. We pride ourselves on our deep understanding of IT while remaining software and hardware-agnostic. Regardless of your organization’s growth trajectory or economic landscape, we at CAG are adept at adapting to your unique needs and complexity, offering tailored solutions to drive your success.

Contact us at info@columbiaadvisory.com.

Maximizing Business Success Through Core Competencies

In today’s competitive business landscape, organizations strive to achieve success by leveraging their unique strengths. One essential aspect of this strategy is identifying and harnessing core competencies—the distinctive skills and capabilities that set them apart. In this blog post, we will explore the significance of robust core competencies and their impact on performance. 

Unveiling Core Competencies:

Unearthing core competencies begins with a comprehensive assessment of internal resources and capabilities. This process involves analyzing various areas where the organization excels, such as research and development, technological innovation, or effective supply chain management. By identifying these core competencies, businesses gain a clear understanding of their unique strengths and competitive advantages.

Strategic Planning for Competitive Advantage:

Once core competencies are identified, they become the cornerstone of strategic planning. CIO magazine emphasizes the importance of allocating resources strategically to enhance and expand these competencies. By capitalizing on their strengths, organizations can innovate, develop superior products or services, and gain a competitive edge. Aligning competitive strategies with core competencies allows businesses to establish a strong market position, driving their success.

Differentiation Through Marketing Initiatives: 

Core competencies play a pivotal role in shaping effective marketing campaigns. Understanding target audiences and tailoring messaging to address their pain points is key to success. By leveraging core competencies, businesses can demonstrate how their offerings provide unique solutions that meet customers’ needs. This differentiation enables brands to position themselves uniquely, resonate with their target market, and command higher prices.

Streamlining Operations for Efficiency: 

Operational efficiency is a significant benefit of core competencies. Investopedia emphasizes the importance of aligning processes with these competencies [^2]. By focusing resources on areas of strength, businesses can streamline operations, eliminate redundancies, and optimize efficiency. This approach allows for effective resource allocation, cost reduction, and improved profitability without compromising quality.

Adapting and Overcoming Challenges: 

While core competencies provide a competitive advantage, it is crucial to remain agile and adaptable. Information Week highlights the importance of continuous evaluation and adaptation to address market dynamics and changing customer expectations. Organizations must consistently refine and expand their core competencies to sustain long-term growth and stay ahead of the competition.

Leveraging core competencies is a vital strategy for organizations seeking to maximize their success. By identifying and capitalizing on internal strengths, businesses can strategically allocate resources, differentiate themselves in the market, streamline operations, and achieve operational efficiency. The continuous evaluation and refinement of core competencies enable organizations to navigate challenges and stay competitive in a rapidly evolving business landscape.

David McLaughlin

CEO

About Columbia Advisory Group

Founded in Dallas in 2012, Columbia Advisory Group LLC (CAG) is an established IT consulting firm renowned for delivering cost-effective, meaningful, and practical IT solutions that solve complex business problems. Our seasoned teams offer comprehensive insight across diverse regulatory and economic environments, providing unbiased, straightforward analysis and recommendations. We pride ourselves on our deep understanding of IT while remaining software and hardware-agnostic. Regardless of your organization’s growth trajectory or economic landscape, we at CAG are adept at adapting to your unique needs and complexity, offering tailored solutions to drive your success.

Contact us at info@columbiaadvisory.com.

Strengthening Cybersecurity in the Oil and Gas Industry: Safeguarding Critical Operations

The oil and gas industry is confronting an alarming reality: its vulnerability to cyber threats. The wake-up call came in May 2021 with the Colonial Pipeline attack, exposing the urgent need for robust cybersecurity measures. Factors like digitalization and the ever-evolving landscape of cybercrime have heightened the industry’s susceptibility. To protect critical national infrastructure, oil and gas companies must prioritize cybersecurity as an essential pillar of their digital strategy. In this article, we will explore the impact of cybersecurity on the oil and gas market and delve into the key cybersecurity value chains that can fortify the industry against emerging threats.

The Impact of Cybersecurity on the Oil & Gas Market:

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the operating environment for oil and gas companies, leading to an increase in cyberattacks. Opportunistic attackers targeted remote-working employees who were navigating unfamiliar digital territories. Now, more than ever, oil and gas companies recognize the importance of safeguarding their operations from cyber threats. By investing in cybersecurity, companies can protect their assets, ensure operational continuity, and maintain the trust of their stakeholders.

Navigating the Digitalization Wave: 

Technological advancements, ranging from artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain to cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT), have transformed the oil and gas industry. These innovations offer remarkable benefits, streamlining operations and enhancing competitiveness. However, embracing digitalization also opens up new avenues for cybercriminals to exploit. As technology becomes more intricate, organizations must adapt by adopting a proactive and vigilant cyber-aware stance to thwart attacks and protect critical assets.

Key Cybersecurity Value Chains: 

To fortify their defenses, oil and gas companies must focus on key cybersecurity value chains:

  1. Hardware: Safeguarding mission-critical servers and safety-critical applications requires protecting chips from cyberattacks. Companies are increasingly designing their chips to ensure greater control and resilience against threats.
  2. Software: A robust software infrastructure is essential for mitigating cyber risks. Areas such as identity management, network security, threat detection and response, cloud security, data security, email security, application security, unified threat management, and vulnerability management must be prioritized to establish comprehensive protection against cyber threats.
  3. Services: Addressing cybersecurity challenges can be complex, requiring specialized expertise. Outsourcing services such as managed security services, post-breach response services, and risk and compliance services can provide the necessary knowledge and resources to stay ahead of vulnerabilities, detect and respond to threats effectively, and ensure compliance with industry regulations.

The Future of Cybersecurity in Oil and Gas: 

The Colonial Pipeline attack sent a clear message that cybersecurity concerns continue to pose a significant threat to the oil and gas industry. Industry leaders anticipate that cybersecurity will remain a disruptive force in the coming years. As the world grows increasingly unpredictable, the critical nature of oil and gas infrastructure amplifies the risk of cyberattacks. The convergence of operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT), coupled with inadequately protected infrastructure, makes oil and gas companies prime targets during future conflicts. Consequently, investing in robust cybersecurity measures is not only crucial for survival but also for maintaining a competitive edge in the industry.

In an era where cyber threats abound, the oil and gas industry must take decisive action to fortify its cybersecurity posture and protect critical operations. By investing in hardware, software, and services that address emerging cyber threats, companies can ensure operational continuity, protect valuable assets, and preserve the trust of stakeholders. The ever-increasing engagement with cybersecurity reflects its paramount importance in the industry, making it a chief concern that demands immediate attention.

Brad Hudson

Cybersecurity Practice Leader

About Columbia Advisory Group

Founded in Dallas in 2012, Columbia Advisory Group LLC (CAG) is an established IT consulting firm renowned for delivering cost-effective, meaningful, and practical IT solutions that solve complex business problems. Our seasoned teams offer comprehensive insight across diverse regulatory and economic environments, providing unbiased, straightforward analysis and recommendations. We pride ourselves on our deep understanding of IT while remaining software and hardware-agnostic. Regardless of your organization’s growth trajectory or economic landscape, we at CAG are adept at adapting to your unique needs and complexity, offering tailored solutions to drive your success.

Contact us at info@columbiaadvisory.com.

US DoE Reinforces Compliance with Update Safeguards Rule

On February 9, a significant update was issued by the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid (FSA) office. The update pertains to compliance with the Safeguards Rule, a component of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA) that deals with customer records, information security, and confidentiality. The GLBA, as described by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), sets out to provide a robust framework for financial institutions to protect their customers’ personal data.

The GLBA applies to institutions of higher education that engage in financial activities such as providing student loans or banking services. Non-compliance with GLBA regulations may lead to the loss of eligibility for federal funding, potentially impacting the institution’s ability to offer financial aid to students. Non-compliance with GLBA regulations may lead to the loss of eligibility for federal funding, potentially affecting the institution’s ability to provide financial assistance to students.

The notice from the FSA emphasized the FTC’s decision to bring the revised Safeguards Rule into effect from June 9, 2023. The update outlines the major points of the Safeguards Rule following modifications made by the FTC in December 2021, highlighting FSA’s expectations for compliance.

A critical aspect of the announcement lies in how it applies the GLBA-defined term “customer information” to higher education, the domain of FSA’s oversight. “Customer information,” as defined under the GLBA, refers to data obtained during the provision of financial services to a student, whether current or past. The scope of financial assistance can include administering Title IV programs, offering institutional loans, including income share agreements, or servicing a private education loan for a student.

The FSA notice zeroes in on two main provisions of the revised Safeguards Rule, set to become effective in June:

  1. The requirement for institutions to encrypt customer data both at rest within institutional systems and during transmission across external networks.
  2. The mandate for multi-factor authentication (MFA) for anyone accessing customer information via institutional systems.

These provisions underscore the FSA’s commitment to enhancing data security and privacy within higher education institutions. However, the notice also alludes to some uncertainties in the enforcement process for Safeguards Rule compliance. It mentions that the FSA will resolve compliance issues linked to the new Safeguards Rule provisions once they come into effect, primarily through institutional Corrective Action Plans (CAPs). It doesn’t clarify what “other means” could lead to a compliance investigation nor provides any framework for the CAPs that institutions need to create and execute.

The reference to “other means” may stir apprehension, echoing a situation years ago when an FSA official sent compliance notices based on media reports of alleged cybersecurity incidents. This necessitates clear communication from the FSA regarding potential triggers for compliance investigations, apart from federal single audit findings.

Concluding the notice, FSA reinforces the importance of institutions adopting the NIST SP 800-171 cybersecurity guidelines concerning federal student financial aid data. The federal government’s controlled unclassified information (CUI) regulations will soon mandate institutional compliance with NIST SP 800-171.

As these changes unfold, CAG is committed to closely collaborating with community members to ensure that FSA’s guidance and enforcement adequately address the regulations and compliance areas.

Where can I find more information? For additional information, see FSA’s electronic announcement: Updates to the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act Cybersecurity Requirements. If you have questions regarding the Department of Education’s enforcement of GLBA, please get in touch with FSA_IHECyberCompliance@ed.gov. More information is also available on the Federal Trade Commission’s website. Updates to the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act Cybersecurity Requirements | Knowledge Center

 

About Columbia Advisory Group:
Columbia Advisory Group (CAG) is a leading Information Technology (IT) consulting firm. CAG’s team has assessed and helped improve the performance of more than 300 technology organizations and IT departments, including many higher education institutions, state agencies, and Fortune 50 customers. Practice specialty areas include Infrastructure, IT Service Management, Cybersecurity, and A/V Services. CAG improves business outcomes with IT insights and expert technical support. Based in Dallas, Texas, CAG works extensively with clients throughout the U.S. Contact us at .

The Importance of Prioritizing Cybersecurity: Safeguarding Your Company’s Future

Recognizing the High Stakes

In today’s interconnected world, the significance of cybersecurity cannot be overstated. Yet, despite the abundance of warnings and information available, many organizations neglect this critical aspect of their operations. Legacy tactics and outdated tools, combined with inadequate planning of cybersecurity programs, only serve to invite trouble and compromise the integrity of your company. As an experienced professional in the field of cybersecurity, I implore you to consider the consequences of disregarding this vital issue.

Alarming Realities: The Ever-Present Threat

The landscape of cyber threats is ever-evolving, as evidenced by the multitude of industry news and data depicting the insidious nature of cyberattacks. A recent report by the esteemed cybersecurity firm Sophos revealed that a staggering 97% of organizations experienced a breach within the last year alone. The spectrum of risks is wide-ranging from ransomware attacks to phishing scams and data theft. It is entirely plausible that your company, or those you closely collaborate with, may have already fallen victim to these cyber perils—or may do so in the near future.

The Costly Consequences: Beyond Reputational Damage

The economic ramifications of such breaches are truly eye-opening. In addition to reputational damage and legal fees, businesses face the costly repercussions of downtime and data loss. On average, the price tag associated with a breach exceeds $4 million, with ransomware attacks alone averaging nearly $2 million. While some may argue that these figures could vary, the underlying truth remains unchanged: the consequences are undeniably severe.

Data Valuation: Dispelling Dangerous Assumptions

Gone are the days when an excuse like “we don’t possess valuable data” suffices for ignoring cybersecurity. Virtually all businesses, regardless of their size or industry, collect and store sensitive information. This can include customer data, financial details, or even intellectual property. Furthermore, the fallout from inadequate cybersecurity measures extends beyond your own organization. When one company suffers a breach, it can propagate throughout the supply chain, causing a domino effect of financial loss and reputational harm.

The Ethical Imperative: Protecting Those You Serve

Choosing to disregard cybersecurity is not only financially irresponsible but also ethically wrong. Businesses, as well as the professionals driving them, carry an inherent duty to safeguard personal customer information and employee data. Negligence in this regard can have far-reaching implications, affecting the lives and livelihoods of countless individuals.

Universal Vulnerability: No Company is Immune

It is important to realize that hackers do not discriminate based on company size or industry. They will exploit any business that possesses valuable data. Cybersecurity is no longer a luxury or an afterthought; it has become a fundamental necessity. Ignoring it is akin to neglecting physical security measures such as locks and alarms. As cybercriminals continually evolve their tactics, it is imperative that your cybersecurity measures keep pace. Too often, headlines reveal that at some point in the chain of events, a crucial misstep occurred, leaving organizations vulnerable for days, weeks, or even months before the ultimate breach occurred.

Emphasizing Comprehensive Measures: Principles Over Products

To effectively protect your organization, it is crucial to prioritize cybersecurity principles over individual products and tools. Emphasize comprehensive and proactive security principles, such as active visibility, monitoring, detection, and resolution of anomalous conditions across applications, identities, behaviors, infrastructure, cloud, endpoints, and data. Furthermore, cybersecurity awareness should encompass critical areas such as patching, monitoring, DevOps, and disaster recovery.

Ignorance is a Costly Mistake

Statistics unequivocally demonstrate that cyberattacks pose a prevalent threat to  businesses of all sizes. The cost of ignoring these risks is far too high to ignore. Failing to acknowledge the value of your company’s data leaves you vulnerable to attacks and further victimization. As a responsible professional, it is your duty to safeguard your organization’s future by prioritizing cybersecurity and ensuring that comprehensive measures are in place to protect against potential threats. Remember, ignorance is not bliss—it is a costly mistake that no business can afford to make.

Brad Hudson

Cybersecurity Practice Leader

About Columbia Advisory Group

Founded in Dallas in 2012, Columbia Advisory Group LLC (CAG) is an established IT consulting firm renowned for delivering cost-effective, meaningful, and practical IT solutions that solve complex business problems. Our seasoned teams offer comprehensive insight across diverse regulatory and economic environments, providing unbiased, straightforward analysis and recommendations. We pride ourselves on our deep understanding of IT while remaining software and hardware-agnostic. Regardless of your organization’s growth trajectory or economic landscape, we at CAG are adept at adapting to your unique needs and complexity, offering tailored solutions to drive your success.

Contact us at info@columbiaadvisory.com.

Harnessing the Power of NIST Cybersecurity Framework for SMEs

Today, I am excited to delve into a topic that continues to be of paramount importance to our clients and partners — cybersecurity. Specifically, I would like to shine a light on the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework and why it’s the best fit for companies with fewer than 1,000 employees.

In a rapidly evolving digital landscape, cybersecurity is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. As SMEs, we may not have the vast resources that larger corporations possess, but that does not mean our cybersecurity efforts should be any less robust. That’s where the NIST Cybersecurity Framework comes into play.

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework is an adaptable, voluntary set of guidelines developed to help organizations of all sizes manage and reduce cybersecurity risk. It’s not an all-or-nothing package; it provides an array of options that companies can select and customize according to their specific needs and capacities.

So, why is it particularly beneficial for businesses with under 1,000 employees?

  1. Scalability: Unlike rigid security standards, the NIST Cybersecurity Framework is scalable. Regardless of your company’s size, you can adapt the framework to suit your cybersecurity needs, ensuring you don’t needlessly expend resources on inapplicable security measures.
  2. User-friendly: The Framework was designed to be understood by everyone in your organization, from your IT department to your executive suite. This makes it easier to integrate across all levels and fosters a more cohesive cybersecurity culture.
  3. Prioritization: It helps companies prioritize their security efforts. Smaller companies often lack extensive cybersecurity budgets, so understanding what areas to prioritize is crucial. The NIST Framework assists in identifying the most pressing risks and allocating resources effectively.
  4. Improved Vendor Management: Many SMEs outsource IT services, and having a standard framework can help manage and evaluate these vendors’ security postures. This enhances the overall security chain and promotes a shared responsibility approach.
  5. Reputation and Trust: Compliance with the NIST Framework signifies to stakeholders – customers, partners, regulators, and the public – that your company takes cybersecurity seriously. This builds trust and enhances reputation, critical aspects of business success in today’s digital age.

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework offers a highly flexible, user-friendly, and practical approach to managing cybersecurity risks, especially for companies with fewer than 1,000 employees. It’s not a silver bullet but offers a pathway towards a robust and resilient cybersecurity posture.

Until next time, stay safe and secure in the digital world.

Brad Hudson

Cybersecurity Practice Leader

About Columbia Advisory Group

Founded in Dallas in 2012, Columbia Advisory Group LLC (CAG) is an established IT consulting firm renowned for delivering cost-effective, meaningful, and practical IT solutions that solve complex business problems. Our seasoned teams offer comprehensive insight across diverse regulatory and economic environments, providing unbiased, straightforward analysis and recommendations. We pride ourselves on our deep understanding of IT while remaining software and hardware-agnostic. Regardless of your organization’s growth trajectory or economic landscape, we at CAG are adept at adapting to your unique needs and complexity, offering tailored solutions to drive your success.

Contact us at info@columbiaadvisory.com.

Phishing in Academia: Unraveling the Cyber Threats Beneath the Surface

Phishing attacks have become an increasingly common threat to individuals and organizations worldwide, and educational institutions are no exception. Ineffective and outdated security practices, undetected vulnerabilities, and increased sophistication of attacks combine to make educational institutions a potential target for attackers. This article discusses the new-age phishing attacks and tips for educational institutions to stay safe.

With widespread online learning and remote work after the COVID-19 pandemic, educational institutions are becoming a prime target for malicious actors looking to steal confidential and sensitive information or install malicious software on school and student information systems. As more educational institutions rely on technology to provide their services, it is essential to understand the risks associated with phishing threats and take proactive steps to safeguard against them to protect the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of valuable educational information systems.

This article will explore the nature of phishing attacks against educational institutions and how the attack vector is getting more advanced, leveraging technologies like AI (Artificial Intelligence) and Machine Learning (ML). It examines the potential impact of such attacks and how institutions can protect themselves against them. Examining real-world examples of successful phishing attempts against educational institutions can provide valuable lessons in preventing similar incidents. By being aware of the threats and implementing effective security measures, academic institutions can protect themselves and their students from the potentially devastating consequences of a phishing attack.

Statistics: Phishing Against Educational Institutions

Education is the third most targeted industry by phishing attempts worldwide after Finance and Healthcare. There were almost 3.2 million phishing attempts against institutions in the education sector in 2021-2022. Some statistics and trends on phishing against educational institutions based on available data are as follows:

  • Education saw a 44% increase in cyberattacks in 2022 compared to 2021.
  • There are around 2000 attacks per week per organization against educational institutions, or a 114% increase compared to 2020.
  • Educational institutions are the least competent in preventing data from getting encrypted in a cyber attack. Higher education reported the data encryption rates at 74%, and lower education was only a little behind at 72%.
  • Six out of ten (62%) educational institutions in the UK reported facing cyberattacks like phishing at least once a week. By contrast, primary schools (12%), secondary schools (23%), and further education colleges (20%) faced fewer breaches. (Official Government Data)

Phishing Attacks – The Tip of the Iceberg

Human-created or mass-spam-type phishing attacks are merely the tip of the iceberg, considering the phishing problems faced by educational organizations. AI-based spear phishing attacks can cause catastrophic consequences in the rapidly changing modern threat landscape.

Adversaries combine data from breaches with Artificial Intelligence to target education end users with highly sophisticated phishing and ransomware attacks. Following are some ways malicious actors can misuse AI and target educational institutions:

  • Human Impersonation on social networking platforms.
  • AI-based texts, images, and videos to target teachers and students.
  • AI and ML to improve algorithms for guessing users’ passwords.

Critical Risks Related to Phishing in the Post-Pandemic Digital World

Following are the key risks educational institutions are facing in the post-COVID digital world:

  1. AI-Based phishing: Threat actors are now taking in every bit of breached data available on the internet and combining it with AI to target and attack users. As phishing attempts’ sophistication grows, it worries some of the most prominent organizations worldwide. The latest Zscaler ThreatLabz Phishing Report states that global phishing attacks rose 29% over the past year to a record 873.9 million attacks.
  2. Poor detection of polymorphic malware: Polymorphic malware uses polymorphic code that changes rapidly – every 15-20 seconds! Most educational institutions deploy anti-malware with traditional signature-based detection techniques to detect and block malicious code. However, with polymorphic malware code, the malware would have changed into something new when the software identifies the new signature. Most security solutions can’t keep up with such evolving malware and cannot detect the threats.
  3. Account takeover fraud: Account takeover (ATO) fraud is an identity theft type common today. In ATO attacks, the bad actor poses as a genuine customer to gain control of an online account, make unauthorized changes and transactions, or sell the verified credentials. Malicious actors carry out ATO fraud in bulk by utilizing credential-stuffing tools and bot attacks. They quickly verify stolen login credentials and make it seem their login attempts originate from multiple IP addresses to bypass security systems. The bots can perform over 100 attacks per second, making it faster and easier for attackers to commit numerous account takeovers.
  4. The growing number of IoT devices: The pandemic increased the number of IoT (Internet of Things) devices, with teachers conducting online lessons. The rising number of IoT devices and lack of adequate security measures created opportunities for attackers. Shared Wi-Fi passwords, loose security policies, and inefficiently designed IoT infrastructure led to various vulnerabilities that opened doors for malicious actors to access educational systems networks.
  5. Risks in cloud services: While cloud services are flexible and offer various benefits, including cost-saving, scalability, and efficiency, they are the primary target for threat actors. Misconfigured cloud services are backdoors for cyber-attacks, leading to data breaches, unauthorized access, insecure interfaces, and account hijacking.

How Educational Institutions Can Protect Themselves Against New Phishing Threats

Educational institutions hold significant confidential and sensitive information, including students’ and their parents’ personal and financial details. Many universities also collaborate with government agencies on cutting-edge research, drawing the interest of other national threat actors. Thus, it becomes crucial for them to protect against new-age phishing threats. Following are some ways they can do so:

  1. Leveraging AI-Based anti-phishing solutions: The application of AI in digital security has several benefits. Detecting vulnerabilities and anomalous patterns within extensive networks is a tedious and complicated task for humans. With AI, educational institutions can analyze data from multiple endpoints faster and more efficiently, quickly detecting threats and vulnerabilities before the malicious actors plan attacks. AI-powered Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS) detect dubious and unusual traffic over regular traffic that enters a network.
  2. Eliminating local admin rights and managing global admin rights: Giving admin rights to users who don’t require them is a widespread problem that makes malicious actors’ activities easier. Compromising admin-users’ credentials gives them free rein to move about the network, change configurations, install applications, and encrypt or steal data. Educational institutions must maintain efficient user account management with admin permissions across the network (For example, Domain Admins in a Microsoft domain). It includes monitoring the membership of admin groups and changing their passwords when the institute terminates someone who knows those passwords.
  3. Selecting a trusted partner in the cybersecurity journey: Schools, colleges, universities, and other educational institutions need the best cybersecurity solution that learns and evolves after encountering new threats. A trusted partner will build security layers, such as anti-malware, secure gateways, firewalls, patching software, and other measures to build a strong defense. The layered cybersecurity approach is the safest way to protect devices and data in a continually changing environment. If one layer, for example, a firewall, gets compromised, additional layers will be in place to ensure your data remains untouched.
  4. Knowing what your network looks like: A practical way to assess your cybersecurity posture is to understand how the attackers view your network. They should only see websites, not admin consoles, file servers, databases, or anything else on an internal network. Institutions must regularly scan the Internet-facing systems to know and limit their exposure. Universities can find various commercial solutions and open-source tools that do an excellent job of assessing network risk factors. Additionally, the US Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and some state governments offer vulnerability scanning for free.
  5. Educating faculty, students, and staff: It is crucial to set a security policy that includes passwords, the internet, email, acceptable use policies, etc. Depending on the technology and processes, the policy will set procedures and rules that everyone on the campus must follow while using school Wi-Fi and devices. Once finalized, institutions must publish the security policy to a few easily accessible locations and forward it to new users as an initial step for setting up accounts and devices. It’s essential to keep your faculty and staff aware and educated by holding monthly or bi-monthly training so that they can learn about new threats and brush up on detecting phishing emails.

Malicious actors are constantly refining their techniques and are increasingly targeting educational institutions due to the wealth of sensitive information they hold. AI-based phishing attacks are a particularly concerning threat to schools, and it is crucial for them to be able to detect, monitor, and prevent such attacks before they can cause harm. Colleges and universities should adhere to basic cyber hygiene to protect themselves in the ever-evolving threat landscape. They must also work with trusted partners who can provide them with efficient and state-of-the-art cybersecurity solutions to help them avoid becoming the next ransomware headline.

In addition to basic cybersecurity hygiene, educational institutions should implement multi-factor authentication, regularly backup data, and provide training to staff and students to raise awareness of potential threats. They should also conduct regular security assessments and audits to identify and address vulnerabilities promptly. By taking these proactive steps, educational institutions can protect their sensitive data and prevent costly and damaging cyber attacks.

References

  1. (2019, August 27). 5 tips for schools battling a rise in cybercrime. Retrieved February 21, 2023, from Avast.com website: https://blog.avast.com/cybersecurity-tips-for-schools
  2. Rathnayake, D. (2022, November 10). Artificial Intelligence, a new chapter for Cybersecurity? Retrieved February 21, 2023, from Tripwire.com website: https://www.tripwire.com/state-of-security/artificial-intelligence-new-chapter-cybersecurity
  3. Crumbaugh, J. (2022, October 10). How AI and machine learning are changing the phishing game. Retrieved February 21, 2023, from VentureBeat website: https://venturebeat.com/ai/how-ai-machine-learning-changing-phishing-game/
  4. (2020, November 23). How cybercriminals misuse and abuse AI & ML: Report trend micro. Retrieved February 21, 2023, from Dynamicciso.com website: https://dynamicciso.com/how-cybercriminals-misuse-and-abuse-ai-ml-report-trend-micro/
  5. Kyrouz, W. (2023, January 17). 5 cybersecurity tips for higher education institutions. Retrieved February 21, 2023, from Dark Reading website: https://www.darkreading.com/vulnerabilities-threats/5-cybersecurity-tips-for-higher-education-institutions
  6. Lee, J. (n.d.). What will the post-Covid fraud landscape look like? Retrieved February 21, 2023, from Persona website: https://withpersona.com/blog/what-will-the-post-pandemic-fraud-landscape-look-like
  7. Marozas, L. (2020, August 13). We need to rethink cybersecurity for a post-pandemic world. Here’s How. Retrieved February 21, 2023, from World Economic Forum website: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/08/rethink-cybersecurity-post-pandemic-world/
  8. Mascellino, A. (2022, October 14). Education sector experienced 44% increase in cyber-attacks over last year. Retrieved February 21, 2023, from Infosecurity Magazine website: https://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/news/education-experienced-44-increase/
  9. (2021, March 25). Polymorphic Malware and Metamorphic Malware: What You Need to Know. Retrieved February 21, 2023, from Hashedout website: https://www.thesslstore.com/blog/polymorphic-malware-and-metamorphic-malware-what-you-need-to-know/

Brad Hudson

Cybersecurity Practice Leader

About Columbia Advisory Group

Founded in Dallas in 2012, Columbia Advisory Group LLC (CAG) is an established IT consulting firm renowned for delivering cost-effective, meaningful, and practical IT solutions that solve complex business problems. Our seasoned teams offer comprehensive insight across diverse regulatory and economic environments, providing unbiased, straightforward analysis and recommendations. We pride ourselves on our deep understanding of IT while remaining software and hardware-agnostic. Regardless of your organization’s growth trajectory or economic landscape, we at CAG are adept at adapting to your unique needs and complexity, offering tailored solutions to drive your success.

Contact us at info@columbiaadvisory.com.

Wi-Fi Security: How WPA3 Improves the Wi-Fi Security of Educational Institutions to Prevent New Phishing and Malware Attacks

Securing Wi-Fi connections is indeed a critical step in protecting an organization’s network from malicious actors. By using WPA3, educational institutions can better protect their networks and the data transmitted over them. WPA3 provides enhanced encryption and authentication mechanisms, making it more difficult for threat actors to intercept and decrypt Wi-Fi traffic

With cloud-managed wireless architecture and the increasing use of IoT devices, many educational institutions today have various online functions. While it has its benefits, it also brings risks and challenges. Hence, wireless security has become highly significant. While passwords win you half the battle by ensuring authorized access, it does not secure the entire wireless network. Therefore, data encryption becomes crucial to determine the wireless network’s security. Besides, malicious actors are forever on the prowl to detect vulnerabilities in an institution’s wireless networks. Therefore, institutions need to implement robust wireless security controls, including but not limited to effective policies, standards, and protocols that can safeguard their valuable and sensitive information assets.

Know About Different Types of Wireless Security Protocols

Wireless security concerns data traffic over the air between wireless devices. It includes communications between wireless access points (APs) and the controller device and between the access points and the various endpoint devices connected to the Wi-Fi network. Generally, four encryption standards are prevalent in the industry.

Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP): WEP was the first encryption algorithm developed by Wi-Fi Alliance for the 802.11 standards. The primary objective was to prevent malicious actors from snooping on information assets transmitted between the APs and the clients. However, no one uses WEP protocols as they have become outdated.

Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA): WPA, an improvement on WEP, was more of an interim standard before developing a long-time replacement for WEP. While it uses the same RC4 encryption technology, it also uses Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) to improve WLAN functions.

WPA2: The successor to WPA, WPA2 is also known as 802.11i and offers better encryption and security by using Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). Besides, it provides an advanced authentication mechanism, Counter Mode with Cipher-Block Chaining Message Authentication Code Protocol (CCMP). However, this standard also supports TKIP for devices that do not support CCMP.

WPA3: Wi-Fi Alliance introduced WPA3, an advanced version of WPA2, in 2018 as the most recent and secure security standard. It uses the latest security protocols, AES-128 and CCMP-128, and standardizes the 128-bit cryptographic suite to disallow obsolete security protocols.

How Does WPA3 Work?

WPA3 is a more advanced security protocol than WPA2 because it mandates the adoption of Protected Management Frames (PMF) to guard against eavesdropping and forging. In addition, while WPA2 uses AES-128 and CCMP-128. CCMP ensures better data confidentiality and message integrity by preventing unauthorized network users from accessing data. The WPA3 Enterprise mode offers optional 192-bit security encryption and advanced 48-bit IV protection for corporate, governmental, and financial information.

How is WPA3 Better than WPA2?

Though WPA2 is highly secure, it has a significant security flaw known as the key installation attack (KRACK) vulnerability. KRACK exploits the reinstallation of wireless encryption keys. Compared to WPA2 Personal, the Enterprise mode has a more robust authentication feature. However, the KRACK vulnerability affects all WPA2 implementations. WPA3 offers a more secure cryptographic handshake by replacing the PSK 4-way handshake with the more modern Simultaneous Authentication of Equals (SAE). It is because SAE requires a new code with every interaction, replacing the reuse of encryption keys. In addition, SAE is an advanced mechanism because it allows the client or the AP to initiate contact as a one-off message instead of a multipart conversation. Since there is no open-ended communication between the client and the AP, WPA3 eliminates eavesdropping and forging. Such attacks usually occur on college campuses because of open Wi-Fi. WPA3 security eliminates these threats.

In addition, SAE flags users who exceed a specific number of password guesses. Therefore, it is more effective and makes the Wi-Fi network resistant to offline dictionary attacks. Since each connection requires a new encryption passphrase, it enables forward secrecy to prevent malicious actors from reusing a captured passcode to decrypt data. Thus, WPA3 safeguards the university’s data from threat actors. WPA3 works alongside Wi-Fi Easy Connect to simplify the onboarding process for IoT devices, especially those that do not have the QR code scan mechanism. In addition, the Wi-Fi Enhanced Open feature improves Wi-Fi network safety by using a new unique key to encrypt information between the AP and each client automatically.

Does WPA3 Have Any Vulnerabilities?

Research has shown that WPA3 has specific vulnerabilities, like the Dragonblood vulnerability. It is a downgrade attack where the malicious actor forces the device down to WPA2, exposing the network to offline dictionary attacks. However, software upgrades can mitigate these vulnerabilities, making WPA3 the most secure wireless protocol today.

The Dragonblood vulnerability is one drawback that can affect educational institutions more because of the higher number of floating network users. Malicious users can tweak the network and set the same Wi-Fi name for their smartphone internet connectivity.

Any unsecured device sharing the internet with such users can get deceived into thinking that it is connecting to the official Wi-Fi network of the university. This attack is an Evil Twin attack and can compromise vulnerable devices to make them unintentionally share confidential information with malicious actors. It happens because of the backward compatibility offered by WPA3. However, educational institutions can secure their systems by ensuring the use of robust passwords, securing admin accounts, and updating their network systems regularly.

How Can WPA3 Improve Wi-Fi Security?

So far, we have discussed how WPA3 overcomes the shortcomings of WPA2 and addresses concerns like the imperfect 4-way and the pre-shared key that expose enterprise networks to compromise. In addition, WPA3 provides excellent protection by making it more challenging to guess passwords. Here are some ways WPA3 can improve Wi-Fi security and prevent the latest AI-based phishing attacks on educational institutions and compromising student data.

Protects network devices: WPA3 keeps your devices secure while connecting to a wireless AP because it replaces WPA2 pre-shared key technology with SAE. It averts key reinstallation attacks and defends against offline dictionary attacks.

Protects passwords better: WPA3 enhances password strength by lengthening the encryption from 128-bits to 192-bits. Therefore, it becomes more challenging for malicious actors to crack passwords by guessing.

Secures connections in public areas: WPA3 provides PMF to prevent eavesdropping and forging attacks in public places. Though malicious actors can get the traffic encryption keys, it is challenging to calculate traffic usage. In addition, since WPA3 offers the advantage of forward secrecy, it provides more data security over open networks, usually observed on university campuses.

The Way Forward – What Cybersecurity Teams Should Know about WPA3

WPA3 has proved to be the most secure internet connection protocol today. Following are the critical aspects that all CSOs should know about WPA3.

  • Mandatory: According to Wi-Fi Alliance, since July 01, 2020, all new Wi-Fi-certified devices must use WPA3. As a result, all the latest gadgets are WPA3 compliant, and it is no longer an option for enterprise networks to use other standards for new devices today.
  • Interoperable: Though all new devices must be WPA3 compliant, the technology is backward compatible. It is interoperable with WPA2-complaint devices.
  • Latest security protocols: Since all new devices must mandatorily support WPA3, the latest gadgets will be available with the most advanced security protocols.
  • No password reuse: WPA3 forces all user devices to save and encrypt their passwords on the AP and client side. Therefore, reusing passwords is out of the question.

As educational institutions rely more on technology for various aspects, securing wireless networks has become more critical. Weak Wi-Fi connections can leave educational institutions vulnerable to phishing attacks, malware infections, and other types of cyber threats, and malicious actors are constantly looking for new ways to exploit vulnerabilities in Wi-Fi networks to gain unauthorized access and steal sensitive data.

Fortunately, the latest Wi-Fi security standard, WPA3, can help educational institutions strengthen their Wi-Fi networks and enhance their cybersecurity posture. WPA3 is designed to address the weaknesses of the previous versions of Wi-Fi security protocols and provides more robust encryption and authentication mechanisms. With the introduction of WPA3, educational institutions can better protect their networks and data against brute-force attacks or dictionary attacks.

Jason Claybrook

Strategic Consultant and Certified Wireless Design Professional (CWDP), Certified Wireless Security Professional (CWSP), Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA)

About Columbia Advisory Group

Founded in Dallas in 2012, Columbia Advisory Group LLC (CAG) is an established IT consulting firm renowned for delivering cost-effective, meaningful, and practical IT solutions that solve complex business problems. Our seasoned teams offer comprehensive insight across diverse regulatory and economic environments, providing unbiased, straightforward analysis and recommendations. We pride ourselves on our deep understanding of IT while remaining software and hardware-agnostic. Regardless of your organization’s growth trajectory or economic landscape, we at CAG are adept at adapting to your unique needs and complexity, offering tailored solutions to drive your success.

Contact us at info@columbiaadvisory.com.

Securing Texas: Columbia Advisory Group’s Impact on Statewide Cybersecurity

Over the past few years, Columbia Advisory Group (CAG) has been instrumental in helping improve the State of Texas’ cybersecurity posture. CAG has completed over 200+ Texas Cybersecurity Framework (TCF) assessments of State of Texas Agencies and Higher Education Institutions.   The TCF is a NIST 800-53/171-based framework assessment for the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR). The TCF offers a uniform language for addressing and managing cybersecurity risk cost-effectively, aiming to bolster cybersecurity without imposing additional regulatory burdens on agencies. The TCF is aligned with the NIST framework, offering five continuous functions that concurrently manage cybersecurity risks: Identify, Protect, Detect, Respond, and Recover. These functional areas are encapsulated within 42 total security control objectives, guiding organizations in identifying, assessing, and managing their unique cybersecurity risks.

CAG’s proficiency in handling these functions has been a cornerstone in successfully implementing the TCF. By comprehensively navigating through these security control objectives, CAG has enabled valuable insights into each agency’s cybersecurity posture, leading to the identification and resolution of potential vulnerabilities.

The TCF also incorporates a maturity model that helps organizations better understand, manage, and reduce cybersecurity risks. The concept of “maturity” in this context refers to the degree of implementation and optimization of processes, ranging from ad hoc practices to actively optimized processes. CAG’s adeptness in determining the maturity level of each security control objective has significantly aided the agencies in progressing towards higher maturity levels, thereby enhancing their cybersecurity readiness.

CAG’s extensive involvement in the execution of TCF assessments illustrates a deep understanding of the framework and a capacity to apply it effectively across a diverse range of agencies, including the TxDOT, Texas Tech University, Health and Human Services, PUC, Texas Parks, and Wildlife and the Secretary of State among others. CAG delivers up to 40 TCFs annually via an MSA with a Texas-based multinational service provider on the DIR contract.

CAG’s expertise and commitment to bolstering Texas’s cybersecurity landscape provide a compelling case study of a successful public-private partnership. CAG’s approach to the TCF has dramatically improved the digital resilience of the Texas public sector, demonstrating the potential for such collaborations to manage large-scale cybersecurity challenges successfully.

The story of CAG’s work with the Texas DIR illustrates how a public-private partnership, when underpinned by a deep understanding of an effective cybersecurity framework, can significantly enhance the security posture of public sector entities. The benefits of this approach extend far beyond cybersecurity readiness, fostering a more informed workforce that remains the first line of defense against cyber threats.

Brad Hudson

Cybersecurity Practice Leader

About Columbia Advisory Group

Founded in Dallas in 2012, Columbia Advisory Group LLC (CAG) is an established IT consulting firm renowned for delivering cost-effective, meaningful, and practical IT solutions that solve complex business problems. Our seasoned teams offer comprehensive insight across diverse regulatory and economic environments, providing unbiased, straightforward analysis and recommendations. We pride ourselves on our deep understanding of IT while remaining software and hardware-agnostic. Regardless of your organization’s growth trajectory or economic landscape, we at CAG are adept at adapting to your unique needs and complexity, offering tailored solutions to drive your success.

Contact us at info@columbiaadvisory.com.