TORONTO -- A new global cybersecurity initiative will allow higher education institutions to share real-time data to mitigate growing incidents of cyber threats.

The Canadian Shared Security Operations Centre (CanSSOC), announced on March 25, that they will be partnering with cybersecurity agencies in the U.S., U.K. and Australia, to address the vulnerability of higher education institutions to cyberattacks and share data on cybersecurity.

“What we are going to do is share specific threats that we are seeing, as real-time as possible, across the research and education sectors in our respective countries,” says Issac Straley, chief information security officer at both CanSSOC and the University of Toronto. “We’re talking about... active information related to attacks, such as IP address information, files, or other indicators that would allow an institution to better detect that they have or have had an incident happen.”

This new partnership follows the release of CanSSOC’s pilot project “threat feed,” announced in June 2020, which allowed Canadians CanSSOC members to receive real-time information on cybersecurity issues, potential threats and security breaches.

Members of CanSSOC include the organization's founding members, McGill University, McMaster University, Ryerson University, University of Alberta, University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto.

“Being a part of CanSSOC provides an added layer of risk mitigation for all post-secondary institutions in receiving early alerts and being able to​ swiftly respond to increasing cybersecurity incidents,” says Jennifer Burns, Associate Vice-President, Information Technology and Chief Information Officer at the University of British Columbia in a statement to CTV.

This new partnership will see collaboration between CanSSOC, OmniSOC and the Research and Education Networks Information Sharing and Analysis Centre in the U.S, Jisc in the U.K. and AARNet in Australia.

Similar to the threat feed pilot project, this partnership will allow international cybersecurity organizations to curate, filter and share their cybersecurity data, all while protecting the identity of the institutions involved.

“We collect a variety of sources,” Straley says. “We use commercial threat intelligence, we use threat intelligence from government sources. We also work by generating our own threat intelligence information, so [asking] what are we seeing in Canadian institutions now and what are our global partners seeing, also in the research and education sector?”

Straley says that this cybersecurity effort is important, as higher education institutions, such as universities, colleges and polytechnics, are especially vulnerable to cyber attacks.

“It’s a challenging space,” Straley says. “We do so many things in higher education. The social landscape is quite complex, teaching and learning, we have information about people, our students, our staff, our donors. And we also have intellectual property that we are generating.”

Straley says cybersecurity threats can be split into three categories: general attacks that average internet-users may experience, attacks from criminal organizations, including things like ransom or exploitation for money, or nation-state attacks, such as espionage.

“If we look across the sector, individual institutions may have different levels of engagement or different concerns but across our sector we are concerned with all three of those,” says Straley.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also made the issue of cybersecurity especially difficult, as the shift to online learning has forced more people online and made institutions more vulnerable to cyberattacks.

“A lot of it is because the opportunity for attackers has increased. The return they get [has increased], because so many more institutions are online and so many more people are online. The attackers are more motivated,” Straley says.

Straley is hopeful that this new global partnership will help better protect higher education institutions from cybersecurity threats.

“It is critical that we work together,” says Straley. “Canadian institutions have seen this, other institutions have seen this. We partnered together early on just to show that it can be done but our goal is to have true international collaboration so that we can change the economics of our cybersecurity defence.”