Webinar Recap: 4 Insights from the Clemson University CISO

John Hoyt, CISO at Clemson University, shares his take on the unique cybersecurity challenges of higher education and how Abnormal Security can help.
September 19, 2023

The challenges of digital transformation are industry-agnostic. As new technologies emerge, organizations across every vertical must try to reconcile budget and resource restrictions with the need to innovate—and higher education is no exception. In fact, higher education institutions have their own unique hurdles—especially when it comes to cybersecurity.

Abnormal Security’s CISO Mike Britton recently sat down with John Hoyt, CISO for Clemson University, to discuss some of the biggest challenges facing higher education institutions and how Abnormal makes a difference.

New Semesters, New Students, New Challenges

At every college and university, the beginning of a new semester means the arrival of new students and faculty members. This regularly shifting environment requires organizations to educate newcomers about cybersecurity issues and defend against common attacks that target them specifically—like social engineering scams, phishing attacks, and account takeovers.

Hoyt says that traffic spikes at the start of each semester and that the university’s environment is getting larger and more complex all the time. “Everybody’s got five devices when they show up on campus,” he says. “We are always trying to prepare for that big mass influx of people. And there’s going to be some rockiness in those first couple of weeks.”

Part of that preparation is trying to educate students. “It’s a challenge,” Hoyt says. “We're doing the best we can because students are targeted more than they have been in the past.”

“Threat actors are targeting students specifically with financially motivated attacks, and I see that across higher education.”
—John Hoyt, CISO at Clemson University

Hoyt says it’s vital to educate students about cybersecurity risks. Even though he and his team do as much as they can to block threats before they reach students, security awareness is still crucial.

Impersonation Attacks Growing in Number and Sophistication

Most students and faculty are well aware that threat actors often leverage email to launch financially motivated attacks and attempt to steal personal information. While Hoyt says there are plenty of run-of-the-mill, unsophisticated impersonation scams sent via email that are easy to identify thanks to poor spelling and grammar, this isn’t always the case.

“There are some scammers that do their homework,” Hoyt says. “Threat actors are looking up the individuals they are impersonating, who they report to, who reports to them—then using that to target them specifically.”

Hoyt explains that the Clemson University security team has seen scam emails impersonating faculty members that invite students to work remotely as research associates for $400 weekly. The threat actor then sends the student a mobile check, usually for more than what they were expecting, with a request to deposit the check and transfer the overpayment back to the “professor”. But once the transaction is complete, the original check bounces and the student is out the funds they transferred.

“The number of impersonation attacks has definitely gone up and continues to stay pretty high.”

While Hoyt is concerned by the fact that these attacks are growing in sophistication, he says that Abnormal helps tremendously. “With auto-remediation, those emails don’t even land in those individuals' inboxes. That’s just a huge difference,” Hoyt says.

Keeping Up with Digital Transformation

With budgets under intense scrutiny, cybersecurity teams at many organizations—higher ed or otherwise—must rationalize every dollar spent. Thus, the goal becomes to do more, with less.

Hoyt says he’s fortunate in that the leadership at Clemson University prioritizes productivity, redundancy, and speed when it comes to cybersecurity. “Risk is the main factor that we need to communicate up to leadership,” Hoyt says. “We’ve got really great support from leadership.”

While Hoyt explains that they are no longer in famine times, they aren’t exactly in a position to feast either. Budgeting and resources are still important factors for colleges and universities. And although it’s good that cybersecurity is a top priority for Clemson, he admits there’s a lot to do to catch up in SaaS and cloud transitions. “We’re moving in that direction,” Hoyt says. “We are aware of it. We have hands on it. And we’re trying to keep up and adapt with that too.”

Defending Email Inboxes at an Unprecedented Scale

Currently, Clemson University uses Office 365 cloud-hosted email which they secure with Abnormal. Hoyt explains that the university had a previous email provider that gave them a lot of trouble.

“We’d have a phishing campaign, and there would be 100,000 messages,” Hoyt says. “The time it took to remove those messages, even using the APIs, just took way too long. That was the biggest headache.”

Part of the issue, according to Hoyt, was the three-way balancing act between on-premise data, off-premise data, and Gmail. Now that Abnormal is in place, the number of attacks they’ve been able to stop has increased significantly. “Honestly, it’s been night and day,” Hoyt says. “The difference is auto-remediation and how effective that has been.”

Hoyt appreciates that Abnormal shows highlighted markers in flagged emails. This provides helpful information regarding unusual user behaviors and why email gets flagged or stopped. “Being able to show that to leadership is huge,” Hoyt says. “Look, this is what we’re stopping.”

“I tell people that Abnormal is probably the best bang for the buck of all the tools we have.”

Cybersecurity for Today, Tomorrow, and Beyond

Keeping up with an influx of students each semester and the rapid rate of digital innovations will certainly continue to be a challenge. But one thing higher education institutions—and organizations of all types—can do to help themselves is to invest in proactive cybersecurity solutions. Abnormal provides total protection against a wide range of threats to ensure that all end users are protected, and data and financial investments are defended.

To learn more about the growing cybersecurity challenges faced by higher education institutions and to hear additional insights from John, watch the on-demand recording of the webinar.

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Or to see how Abnormal can stop email attacks before they can be delivered to faculty, staff, and student inboxes, schedule your personalized demo.

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Webinar Recap: 4 Insights from the Clemson University CISO

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