Empowering Educational Compliance: Navigating the Future with Autonomous Pentesting in Academia

by | Mar 28, 2024 | Customer Stories

How Autonomous Pentesting Transformed University Protection

Given the pivotal role of education in shaping future leaders and driving innovation, safeguarding the integrity and security of educational systems is paramount. The educational sector continues to be a prime target for cyber threat actors due to its vast repositories of sensitive data, ranging from student records to innovative research findings. As universities increasingly rely on digital platforms for administrative functions, online learning, and collaborative research endeavors, the volume and diversity of data stored within their systems become lucrative targets for cybercriminals. Breaches not only compromise the confidentiality of student and faculty information but also undermine the institution’s reputation and erode trust among stakeholders. Moreover, the interconnected nature of academic networks exposes them to a wide array of cyber-attacks, including phishing attempts, malware, ransomware, exploits, and data breaches, which can disrupt operations and compromise the integrity of academic activities. By prioritizing cybersecurity, educational institutions not only fulfill their duty to protect the interests of their stakeholders but also contribute to the broader goal of building a secure and resilient digital ecosystem that fosters innovation, collaboration, and learning.

About Moravian University

  • Moravian University’s liberal arts education prepares each individual for a reflective life, fulfilling careers, and transformative leadership in a world of change.
  • Year Founded: 1742
    (6th oldest college in America)
  • Number of Staff: 372
  • Operational Reach: Moravian University is a small private institution known for offering undergraduate and graduate degrees that blend a leadership focus, career development, and global experiences with liberal arts programs. Moravian University is committed to making our private education affordable to as many students as possible.

Playing by the Book

Additional to safeguarding information and networks, educational institutions are also subject to various laws and regulations governing data protection, privacy, and cybersecurity. Compliance with these requirements is not only a legal obligation but also essential for maintaining the institution’s reputation, avoiding penalties, and protecting against cyber-attacks. This may include standards such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), and various other State and Federal higher education regulatory policies and guidance. For our higher education customers, a key aspect of compliance includes conducting continuous cyber risk assessments of their environments. This not only ensures they comply with regulations, but to also find, fix and remediate potential cybersecurity vulnerabilities within their environment before cyber threat actors exploit them.

As explained by alumni and Director of Information Security at Moravian University, Jim Beers,

Compliance is one of the main driving factors behind why Moravian needed to implement solutions that identify vulnerabilities so that we can fix them quickly.

Being with Moravian for over 25 years, Jim innately understands the need for higher education institutions to implement tools to ensure compliance and see their environment as an attacker does. Like many others in Jim’s situation, implementing solutions (such as pentesting) is crucial for universities to proactively identify and address security vulnerabilities, fortifying their digital infrastructure against cyber threats and ensuring the confidentiality, integrity, and availability (CIA) of sensitive academic and personal data.

However, unlike Jim, many educational organizations often opt to do the minimum in cybersecurity compliance. Limited budgets and resources often constrain their ability to invest in robust cybersecurity measures. Additionally, often there is a lack of awareness or understanding of the evolving cyber threats and regulatory requirements at the leadership and administrative levels. The decentralized nature of many educational institutions, with numerous departments and stakeholders operating independently, can create challenges in implementing cohesive cybersecurity policies and practices. This can also result in the perception that cybersecurity is not a top priority compared to other competing demands within the institution.

Moravian University: Remediation Guidance

What these organizations fail to realize is that a once a year traditional pentest often costs more than an autonomous solution that continuously assesses their environment. Additionally, traditional vulnerability scanners are good at identifying and describing vulnerabilities in general, but often fall short in providing actionable guidance. Jim explains, “our past vulnerability scanner told me what vulnerabilities were of high or low severity and if there is an exploit, but it didn’t tell me why…there was too much information without enough direction or actionable insights.” For an educational institution to proactively stay ahead of threats, Jim needed to look further and find a solution that not only saved him time and frustration, but also provided him with immediate results and fix actions to quickly resolve vulnerabilities before threat actors exploit them.

Enter NodeZeroTM

Jim wanted to get away from basic vulnerability scanners and adopt something that could not only meet regulatory and compliance requirements but one that could exceed them. His goal was to “move from a limited theoretical vulnerability scanner to a scanner that allows me to see more information and reports on the things that can really be exploited.” Additionally, his current vulnerability scanner was “somewhat expensive” and was limited in its scanning capability, along with its poor actionable results. Jim was also concerned that his current tools could not scan and illuminate their entire network, highlighting that “security is about visibility, and you have to know what is there to protect, and our ability to do that was limited.” As the Department of Education (DoE) continues to implement more stringent cyber policies, regulations, and guidance, pentesting is the main driver for compliance across the board. That coupled with cyber insurance requirements, Jim explains, “they [DoE and insurers] want to see that you’re identifying exploitable vulnerabilities and you’re fixing them,” and the only way to do that is through continuous assessments.

The things that you [NodeZero] are finding, we didn’t know existed.

Too new – let’s go traditional

We often hear that some of our higher education customers were hesitant to move from traditional, manual pentesting efforts to an autonomous pentesting solution like NodeZero. Some universities may be inclined to stick with traditional pentesting methods due to familiarity, comfort, and the perception of reliability. Many institutions may have established relationships with pentesting firms or internal teams that have been conducting tests using traditional methodologies for years. Additionally, there might be a lack of awareness about the limitations of traditional pentesting and the advantages of newer autonomous pentesting solutions.
However, most educational institutions that use traditional (manual) pentesting approaches tend to pentest one time to meet regulatory compliance requirements. Moravian did just that. Jim explains that before he explored solutions like Horizon3.ai’s NodeZero, they had “done one traditional pentest nearly 10 years ago, and it was a hefty sum.” Furthermore, Jim’s management thought that these emerging autonomous solutions were too new to the market, and that traditional pentesting was reliable, even if it was pricey. They implemented another traditional pentesting effort prior to choosing NodeZero. “For the amount we paid, [the pentesters] did a good job, but it was not exactly what they expected,” says Jim. The results Jim received from the traditional pentest were good, but he explained that “it was a one and done test…I have all year to fix the issues, but the environment keeps evolving and changing as we are going along…next year, how am I going to be surprised in the next pentest and during that gap, what if something goes wrong and I don’t know about it?”

Shifting to an Autonomous State of Mind

As Jim is keenly aware of the evolving cyber landscape, he decided that continuous, autonomous pentesting would not only meet compliance standards, but keep Moravian at the forefront of proactively securing their environment and keeping sensitive data safe. After their second time using traditional pentesting was somewhat unsuccessful, Jim decided it was time to give NodeZero a chance.

Moravian University: Verifying Fixes Work

Right away, Jim realized that they had made the right decision, especially because NodeZero now allowed Moravian to implement unlimited testing of their environment, as well as the ability to schedule pentests at will. He also mentioned that NodeZero allows him to “check for vulnerabilities, find out how they’re exploited, and then fix it immediately…I was amazed at how easy it was…I can use the 1-click verify shopping cart to quickly verify our remediations, saving countless hours.” With NodeZero, customers can ensure fix actions were properly implemented with 1-click verify, enabling them to quickly check that remediations fixed the issues. Further, Jim explains how NodeZero PDF reports and CSV files are highly informative, allowing him “to download it all as a package, slice and dice as needed, and get them distributed to the right people.”

On top of that, Jim also noted that he liked that he “could spin up NodeZero on different parts of the network and try to get into a place that I didn’t think we could get to…testing my defenses and giving me visibility.” NodeZero doesn’t just scan your network, it looks at your network as an attacker would. Our attack paths show how an attacker weaves into a network and what they did to get domain admin, host compromise, or sensitive data exposure, for example. He was also impressed with our proactive Rapid Response capability outside of NodeZero’s interface, calling to an additional Follow, Alert, and Review (FLARE) notification he received via email from our Customer Success and Engineering teams.

“Starting about 5 years ago, we had a 6.8% response rate [to phishing campaigns] and we’re down to .22%”

Moravian University: Phishing Concerns

Lastly, Jim mentioned that one of “the biggest risks [to Moravian] is users coughing up their credentials because they were phished.” Recently added to NodeZero, customers can now harness the Phishing Impact test that allows security professionals to integrate into their existing phishing training and awareness platforms. Jim thinks that this test will be eye opening, and help organizations shift policies and guidance to better educate staff. Jim says, “using phished credentials from the phishing test and injecting them in other pentests would be a lesson for not only the individual whose credentials were phished, but for the entire institution about how quickly something could happen.” His goal is to use the new capability to educate management and staff as to why phishing is a huge risk to their organization and what can be done to continue driving their response rate down.

My first impression was ease of use…to be able to just copy and paste a command and BAM! You’re inside attacking my network!

“Compliance drove us to trying to find a pentesting solution”

Moravian University: Vulnerability Prioritization

NodeZero revolutionizes the landscape for educational institutions seeking an autonomous pentesting solution, empowering a proactive strategy to illuminate how an attacker sees their environment. Additionally, NodeZero also enables institutions to comply with and exceed State and Federal higher education regulatory policies and guidance. “To sum it all up, compliance drove us in trying to find a pentesting solution, but what you had to offer [Horizon3.ai] covered not only pentesting, but vulnerability management,” says Jim. NodeZero provides universities and alike with actionable insights and prioritized recommendations for remediation, as well as the ability to verify fix actions. This enables security teams to focus their efforts on addressing the most critical vulnerabilities first.

Overall, while traditional pentesting methods may have served higher educational institutions well in the past, we have witnessed first-hand that the transition to an autonomous pentesting solution like NodeZero offers countless benefits, including enhanced efficiency, scalability, adaptability, and actionable insights, hardening the institution’s cybersecurity posture in an increasingly complex threat landscape.

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