Schools have always been a vulnerable target for cybercriminals. The increased use of remote learning infrastructure due to the COVID19 pandemic has only intensified the attacks. However, it’s not only remote technologies that put the sector at risk.
There are various reasons why education is a good target for cybercriminals. Of course, they are not the same for all the education venues. What might be a threat to a large university or college, might not be a relevant issue for a public school. Still, all of these institutions are under risk when it comes to cybersecurity.
First of all, these institutions keep student and staff data, including some sensitive details that could be valuable to cybercriminals. The attackers could use this data for profit, either by selling the information to a third party or by using it as a bargaining tool and extorting money. Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) is another common and fairly easy to implement type of attack. In this case, the perpetrators make the institution’s network unavailable by overwhelming it with traffic from multiple resources. If the target network is poorly protected (and it often is), the attack is not particularly hard to carry out.
There are also financial gains. Private institutions and universities handling a large number of student fees are at especially high risk. Nowadays, most students pay the fees via online services, sometimes transferring huge amounts of money. Finally, a reason for cyber attacking a learning facility can be espionage, since universities and colleges are often holding valuable intellectual property.
Common cybersecurity threats in education
There are two most common ways education networks are breached:
Phishing ‒ tactic attackers use to trick users into giving them sensitive information, such as passwords or network credentials, or installing malware through malicious links and attachments in emails. In JISC’s 2018 Cybersecurity Posture Survey, this type of attack is highlighted as the top threat higher education venues face.
Ransomware/malware ‒ a type of attack which involves bad actors encrypting data files and systems through malicious software and requiring districts to pay a ransom to regain access. It usually starts with a phishing email, but can also exploit open Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) ports and Server Message Block (SMB), a protocol used for file sharing and access to remote services, to spread malware. This year has seen an alarming number of ransomware attacks in the educational sector, one of the largest incidents being the case of The University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) which ended in paying a ransom of $1.14 million to recover locked files.
Data Breach – loss or theft of personal information such as passwords, emails, credit card numbers, health reports, etc. Data breach is usually performed true credential stuffing, brute force or database hacks.
Why does this happen?
Still, the issue is not limited to just these types of cyber attacks. The problem also lies in the lack of awareness. Both students and staff often aren’t practicing good cyber hygiene. For example, they use weak passwords or reuse the same password on several different platforms and can accidentally compromise the network. Plus, many schools are lacking skilled personnel and financial resources. This makes it hard to keep sensitive data secured and improve privacy-related defenses.
The worldwide quarantine policy has caused the rapid transition to remote working and learning. In addition, it increased the usage of (free) online tools and software. As a form of first aid during the pandemic, these measures could be quite useful. However, they could also include malware, user tracking, or poor privacy controls. The Zoom application, widely used for online classes and video conferencing, is one example. It had a lot of trouble with now-called “Zoombombing”. Namely, many unauthorized users joined conference calls through credential stuffing or data found online, which disrupted the security and privacy of the participants.
Ways to reduce the likelihood of attacks
Universities, colleges and schools should take hacking attacks seriously, just like any other industry vulnerable to cyber crime.
Education & Training
The first important step to take is training end-users (teachers and students) on how to recognize and avoid cyber attacks. The end-user is often the weakest link in the security chain. Relatively basic hacking methods such as phishing continue to be very successful. So, everyone should know how to identify such attacks and how to communicate with IT staff about it.
A modern method to protect school accounts is including a simple, user-friendly step of Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) when signing in to accounts. An MFA platform will protect from phishing, credential theft, and other forms of cyber attacks while reducing costs of administrative support.
Considering a security team, either internal or external (outsource), is a must. Some universities even engage students in becoming part of Cyber Defense Teams or Cyber Threat forums.
Last but not the least is to review insurance possibilities. Education institutions are adding cybersecurity coverage to their insurance policies more frequently, driven by the increase in cyber threats and attacks.