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With online education becoming a new normal, India’s apex higher education regulator University Grants Commission (UGC) has asked colleges, institutions and universities to strengthen the cybersecurity mechanism and put in place a cybersecurity ecosystem.

This comes as India battles a surge in cybersecurity incidents post the pandemic as several services, including education, have shifted online.

Education is a key target for cyber frauds as it deals with a huge amount of data on demographic and professional records of students, staff and allied education sector. It is also a big user of online financial transactions, becoming an easy target for cybercriminals.

The education regulator has also asked higher educational institutions, numbering over 50,000, to be on the guard and report cybersecurity incidents.

UGC, in a letter to institutions, told them its effort is to draw their attention and action “to strengthen cybersecurity and to tackle the unforeseen challenges of cybercrime and develop an ecosystem for cyber security in HEIs (higher education institutions)". Mint has seen a copy of the letter.

The education regulator said institutions must sensitize staff and students to the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre and initiatives take by the home ministry to prevent cybercrimes.

The regulator’s directive may work as a template for the overall education sector at a time usage and integration of technology in education is going to increase and the education ministry itself is speaking about the value of technology in education to increase access and better use of resources.

Cybersecurity incidents have been rising of late. Barracuda Networks, a cybersecurity firm, found more than 1,000 spear-phishing attacks targeting educational institutions in India between July and September 2020, Mint reported in November. The lack of awareness, tight budgets and limited resources make institutions and schools easy targets for cyberattacks and “unfortunately, make attacks more effective", Murali Urs, country manager, India, of Barracuda Networks, said at the time.

A government official, who did not want to be named, said while data relating to the education sector is not readily available, growing incidents of cybercrimes point to an increasing risk across the board and more so in three sectors—education, health and finance.

India saw a surge in cyberattacks amid a rapid adoption of digital services across the country following the lockdown imposed in the wake of covid-19. About 1.16 million cases of cyberattacks were reported in 2020, a nearly three-fold jump from 2019. On average, 3,137 cybersecurity-related issues were reported every day during 2020, the Union government told Parliament in March.

In July, the Centre told Parliament that “Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In)... has reported that a total number of 394,499, 1,158,208 and 607,220 cybersecurity incidents are observed during the year 2019, 2020 and 2021 (up to June) respectively".

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