What happened to the Flashback Trojan? Turns out US universities are still riddled with it

Malware hiding in dorm rooms

US universities are still battling surprisingly high levels of malware infection among their student populations, mainly old forms considered neutralised years ago such as the Mac Flashback Trojan and Conficker worm, according to security firm BitSight Technologies.

The firm's latest Insights report admits that universities face a state-of-the art problem without equivalent resources to fight back. Students are precocious but unguarded users of Internet technology, own lots of devices and will have tried new and sometimes risky apps and services months before anyone over 30 years old has even heard of them.

To get some idea of what is going on BitSight lined up a comparison between large universities that happen to participate in a clutch of US sporting conferences, the SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big 10, Big 12 and Ivy League. This covered a total of 2.25 million students and 11 million IP addresses (i.e. devices).

In the year to June 2014, the firm rated each set of universities using its proprietary security index (calculated using third-party and internal data), finding that education scored below even the hack-riddled healthcare and retail sectors for malware traffic and other threats such as breaches.

The best ratings were achieved by the Big 12, Ivy League and SEC institutions with a score of 661, 614 and 610 (bigger number is better), respectively. The Pac 12s scored 600, the Big 10 596 with the ACC bottom of the pack on 588.

What do these abstract scores signify? In practical terms they mean that the US university sector is riddled with a pick 'n mix of malware, including many types people stopped worrying about years ago.

The exact mix varied by university sporting conference. The Big 12, which includes the University of Texas in Austin, has a particular problem with the Alureon rootkit that dates from 2010 and accounted for more than half of the malware traffic detected in this group of institutions.

The Ivy League, SEC and Pac 12 had a lot of Flashback infections, a threat discovered in 2012, probably explained by the large number of students at these institutions owning Apple Macs. As for the ACC, covering institutions from Virginia and Maryland to Florida, they appeared to have a big problem with the Jadtre Trojan from 2009 onwards, although BitSight admitted this was skewed by very high levels in one institution.

Compared to other US sectors assessed, with an overall score around 640, education was bottom of the league table, BitSight said. Finance had the best rating, 780, ahead of utilities on 740, retail on 680, healthcare on 650.

"All universities with a Security Rating of a 700 or above employ a Chief Information Security Officer or Director of Information Security," noted BitSight.

"Many of these schools also have online resources for faculty and staff and active information security awareness programs. Yet, for other schools, research indicates that strategic cyber-plans fail to exist."

The persistence of older forms does imply there is a problem with the latter at some universities - avoiding Flashback would be easier if students were told what to look out for. Even Mac users can absorb security advice.

"One way that security teams can better communicate and monitor security is through benchmarking performance. By tracking changes over time and comparing internal security performance against peer and competitor schools, security professionals can more efficiently use the resources on hand," said BitSight. Organisations could also look at threat-sharing organisations such as REN-ISAC.

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