Essay mills could be used to launch cyber attacks on universities, experts warn

Universities have been warned over essay mills, with a security chief saying that organised criminal gangs could be using them to launch cyber attacks on institutions.

There are already concerns that the burgeoning essay mills industry, where students pay private companies to complete their university work for them, is threatening the quality of a British university degree.

Now Jisc, which provides the network for higher education institutions, has warned that websites where students purchase off-the-shelf essays could also be launching cyber attacks on universities.

Henry Hughes, the director of security at Jisc, said: “Cyber attacks are a growing problem for colleges and universities and, as is probably the case with illegal essay mill activity, is often driven by organised crime.”

In a joint warning with the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the university watchdog for academic standards, Jisc urged universities to be vigilant “against an emerging cyber security threat from essay mills”.

The organisations said that universities are currently facing an “unprecedented” spike in ransomware attacks.

“Essay mills, otherwise known as contract cheating sites, are looking to dupe students and cash in by hacking into university websites and placing content for their own ends that appears to be legitimate and aligns with university services,” Jisc and the QAA explained.

“Typically, attackers write on student-facing pages, with hyperlinks to their own websites, or hijack links to legitimate services with redirects to contract cheating sites.

“This type of devious activity has already been picked up at US and Australian universities, and similar tactics could well be employed in the UK.”

Outlawing essay mills considered

The Government is currently considering whether to criminalise essay mills, a move which would see perpetrators sent to prison.

Ministers have previously signalled they would be willing to back a Private Members’ Bill which outlaws plagiarism and punishes those who profit from it.

Earlier this year, the Department for Education convened an expert group which will advise ministers on how best to tackle the issue of contract cheating, including legislative options.

The QAA has long campaigned for a change in the law. In 2019, Lord Storey, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, submitted a Private Bill to ban essay mill services.

Whilst universities already use complex anti-plagiarism software to detect the copying of academic texts, the process of contract cheating – students submitting paid-for essays as their own original work – means that examiners and markers are powerless to prevent foul play.

Gareth Crossman, the head of policy and communications at the QAA, said: “Essay mills present a threat to the world-class reputation of UK higher education. These companies are unscrupulous and their exploitation of students risks their academic and future careers, while opening them up to blackmail and cyber crime.

“Their only motivation is money, so we need action from governments and online platforms to make operation as difficult as possible.”

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