To confront an increasing number of phishing attacks against the 50,000 users of its computers and networks, Oxford University blocked access to Google Docs for 2.5 hours this week.
In a blog posted Monday, OxCERT, the University's network security team, explained that the action was prompted by an increase in attacks in recent weeks, as well as what it described as slowness by Google's own security team to take down the nefarious Google Docs Web forms. The forms, which masquerade as official communications, collect email, user name and password from those who fill them out.
"Now, we may be home to some of the brightest minds in the nation," Robin Stevens of OxCERT explained in the post. "Unfortunately, their expertise in their chosen academic field does not necessarily make them an expert in dealing with such mundane matters as emails purporting to be from their IT department. Some users simply see that there's some problem, some action is required, carry it out, and go back to considering important matters such as the mass of the Higgs Boson or the importance of the March Hare to the Aztecs."
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OxCERT said almost all the recent attacks used Google Docs URLs, and "in some cases the phishing emails have been sent from an already-compromised University account to large numbers of other Oxford users."
OxCERT said it was investigating several technical measures for dealing with the issue, adding it would be pressuring Google to be more responsive.
Reaction to the blockage of Google Docs ranged from understanding and commendations to irritation. "It seems overkill to block Google Docs as a solution for a phishing problem," Sam S. wrote in the comments on the OxCERT blog. Other comments were similar, ranging from thereby avoiding the use of user credentials.
The block, lifted after just 2.5 hours, may help bring attention to the dangers of phishing schemes, Stevens was quoted as saying.
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