Cybersecurity in Education — the ‘Good’, the ‘Bad’ and the ‘Ugly’

These days, no enterprise is spared from malicious hackers. Even not-for-profit educational institutions are particularly vulnerable.
Cybersecurity in Education
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Let’s break down the top cybersecurity threats that schools are facing today and the simple strategies to prevent it.

We think of our schools as being a safe, friendly place, but once connected to the internet, it’s like open season for cyber crime. These days, no enterprise is spared from malicious hackers. Even not-for-profit educational institutions are particularly vulnerable. 

IT staff, administrators, teachers and other school employees should soon realize that cybersecurity risks have become increasingly dangerous in the education sector. It’s well known that schools are not sufficiently funded in security technology. That is why attackers view schools and districts as sitting ducks when it comes to cybersecurity. 

Let’s break down the top cybersecurity threats that schools are facing today – the ‘bad’’. And simple strategies to prevent it – the ‘good’. 

1. Phishing and Social Engineering

The Bad – The most common threat is social engineering attacks, which includes phishing – a technique used by cybercriminals to con users into sharing sensitive data such as network credentials or by installing malware. Attackers send phony emails that appear to come from valid sources in an attempt to trick users into revealing confidential information.

“Cyber-attacks are as common as ever and becoming more elaborate as technology advances,” says UDT Sr. Cybersecurity Manager Adonis Sardinas. “You’re always getting phished. The question is how aware are you to successfully spot the scams?”

The Good – Sardinas recommends the following tips:

  1. Be vigilant about emails that seem impersonal or use scare tactics
  2. Never download files you’re not familiar with
  3. Always check a URL before you click on the link—sometimes bad links are embedded into an email as a way to trick the reader
  4. Companies rarely send out messages without proofreading content, so multiple spelling and grammar mistakes can signal a scam message
  5. Most companies will have a brand identity that is recognizable in their emails. Look for logos, brand colors and contact information in the message.

 

Data Breach

The Bad – This is the most common invasion involving actors who are not authorized to see or change certain types of data, break into a district or school’s system and copies, steals, transmits, changes, or just views the data. These types of incidents make up a little more than a third—36 percent—of all reported cyberattacks on schools, according to the K12-SIX.

Typically, these are financially motivated attacks, regardless of whether or not they have trusted access, by external hackers with intent to sell student and staff data for identity theft. Or simply a malicious internal actor like a student who retrieved a teacher’s password and logged in to the district or school network to change some grades

The Good – The following guidance from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for businesses can help school administrators mitigate the damage if personal information may have been exposed. Although the answers vary from case to case:

  1. Secure systems by changing passwords, limiting user access, contacting law enforcement, and bringing in experts to understand exactly where systems are vulnerable and what data has been accessed.
  2. Take the impacted devices offline immediately, but don’t turn them off until forensic experts have been consulted. If a hacker stole credentials, note that the system will remain vulnerable until those credentials are changed.
  3. Notify the IT department and/or cybersecurity provider who will then execute security measures to prevent further risk and damage.
  4. Implement multi-factor authentication for anyone accessing staff and student information on your system.
  5. Maintain a log of authorized users’ activity and keep an eye out for unauthorized access. 

 

Ransomware

The BadEducation Week reported that in January of 2022, roughly 5,000 schools and colleges saw their websites go dark when a ransomware attack targeted Finalsite, a private company that provides web hosting and other communications services.

Ransomware attacks, which involve bad actors encrypting data files and systems through malicious software and requiring districts to pay a ransom to regain access, are also another huge threat to school districts. In an increasingly remote learning environment, these attacks have become more challenging because systems aren’t set up to be automatically patched once they’re off the network.

The Good – Security solutions, like MDR (Managed Endpoint Detection & Response), can help your school defend its data and protect against cyberattacks. MDR solutions continually monitor endpoint devices and provide more coverage than anti-virus software. It will spot anomalies or suspicious activity across your cloud estate. If an incident is detected, it can rapidly deploy action, down to machine isolation or automated response.

 

The ‘Ugly’ Impact of Lax Security

Cyber attacks are no longer a matter of “if” but “when” and the consequences could be seriously damaging to any organization. Schools and universities could run the risk of exposing research data, and personal information of vulnerable students and staff in a cyber attack. Not to mention, the high probability of shutting down critical infrastructure and paralyzing operations. With so many cyberattacks in the education sector, it’s essential to have an incident response (IR) plan in place to identify, prevent, and respond to threats and stay resilient against attacks.

Focus time, money, and effort on what really matters

Let’s build success together. 

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Experiencing a security breach?

Get immediate assistance from our security operations center! Take the following recommended actions NOW while we get on the case:

RECOMMENDED IMMEDIATE NEXT ACTIONS

  1. Determine which systems were impacted and immediately isolate them. Take the network offline at the switch level or physically unplug the systems from the wired or wireless network.
  2. Immediately take backups offline to preserve them. Scan backups with anti-virus and malware tools to ensure they’re not infected
  3. Initiate an immediate password reset on affected user accounts with new passwords that are no less than 14 characters in length. Do this for Senior Management accounts as well.

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