Cybersecurity and keeping students safe online

While developments in machine learning can help spot cyber attacks, adopting some simple habits can help keep students safe online.

Student vulnerability to malware varies almost as much as the rest of the population's, dependant on their cyber literacy. When it comes to the majority of learners now though, we're looking at a generation of digital natives, under the UK median age of 40. While there has been research that suggests the more experience you have of technology, the more risky your behaviour can be, this is also a generation that is much savvier when it comes to technology, and the risks to the infringement of their data. 

For both students and teachers, properly understanding what a cyber security attack looks like and how to respond may not be second nature, but this could all change with the launch of the UK government's cyber security centre, (and the announcement of the digital strategy). Current threats are already published, but the cyber security centre will also be coordinating responses to significant incidents, for those organisations under attack. The centre will also be certifying some commercial products, offering student bursaries and working alongside academics and researchers in this field. 

The investment of £1.9bn from the UK government over a five-year period is a significant spend. Cyber security from the likes of Microsoft, Google and Amazon also has big bucks behind it, as well as years of previous investment and learning. The real risks are now with the internet of things and in particular amongst the small start-ups where time really is money – products out the door mean financing to continue. It's a new market, but one that will hopefully improve its security offering with market maturation. 

Given recent reporting on the internet of things, and on the cybercrime underground, it's understandable that students, (and parents) will be mindful of increasingly online learning environments. However, we've come a long way since the early days of cyber security – and machine learning is offering us real insights into the behaviour of the malicious bots commonly known as malware. These bots can evolve over time so can evade the more traditional, rigid methods of detection, machine learning is helping us follow the routes they take.  

It's a powerful tool, but it's just one aspect in a landscape of remediation, prevention and detection, and there are many ways students can take responsibility themselves: 

Top tips for staying safe online:

  • Back up your data!
  • Report emails that you suspect so that others stay protected
  • Auto update – it ensures your patching is up to date
  • Enable your firewall and use antivirus software
  • Switch on encryption on your wireless
  • Use screen lock or auto-lock on your mobile devices
  • Disable your Bluetooth connectivity when not in use
  • Change default passwords straightaway
  • Ensure different passwords for social and financial purposes
  • Don't open links or attachments from strangers
  • Check your bank statements so you can spot any anomalies early on
  • And finally, if something seems too good to be true, that may be because it isn't true

Miranda Mowbray formerly of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Labs is a researcher in machine learning for computer network security, and ethics for Big Data analysis. She’s also a Fellow of the British Computer Society. She will be speaking at this year's Networkshop on 11 – 13 April in Nottingham, UK, addressing education delegates on how machine learning allows us to spot patterns in malware and improve cyber security.  For more information about the programme and to book your place at the conference, see