Cryptocurrency mining operations, illegal or not, are becoming a real problem for the higher education sector, where hackers have found plenty of easy to hack systems, but also where students are using university resources to make an extra profit via deliberate cryptocurrency mining.
This is the main conclusion of an Vectra report that analyzed attacker behavior by industry, and which found that the higher education sector was the industry vertical with the most infected devices and the most detections of malicious events.
The study, which analyzed data from 4.5 million monitored devices across 246 organizations found, on average, 165 infected devices and 1,403 malicious events for every 10,000 systems.
But for the educational sector, the detection rate was of 542 devices (three times the normal average) and 3,715 events (two and a half times the normal detection rate).
The reason, researchers say, is because big university campuses represent "ideal pastures" for hackers. With an initial foothold on any of these large networks, a hacker could easily identify and infect multiple computers in one fell swoop.
For the study, Vectra collected information from August 2017 through January 2018, a time period that included last year's cryptocurrency boom, when prices were out of control. It is such, to nobody's surprise that the most common malicious events were cryptocurrency related.
But besides PCs that were obviously infected by hackers, researchers also detected cryptocurrency mining operations that took place via systems that didn't show any signs of infection.
Students were mining cryptocurrencies using their personal PCs as a way to make an extra profit. Coinmining from a university's network has its advantages, the main being that students aren't burdened with the electricity bill that is usually associated with this type of activity. In most cases, students benefit from free electricity, costs covered as part of their tuition fee.
According to researchers, the reason why students can mine cryptocurrencies undisturbed in most cases, and why university networks often fall victims to attacks is because these networks are loosely managed.
"Corporate enterprises enforce strict security controls to prevent cryptocurrency mining behaviors," Vectra researchers say. "However, universities do not have the same luxury with students."
Instead, university networks include minimal security controls, which often aren't enough to prevent or even detect infections in time.
Universities usually leave students and professors alike to secure devices on their own, and don't provide any additional protection except occasional warnings to patch systems and avoid opening suspicious emails.
Unless this changes, researchers see more malware-related activities finding a cozy home on university networks in the future, and cryptocurrency mining gaining wider adoption among students as they realize they could abuse university networks to redeem some of their tuition costs.