We have recently seen an increase in malicious actors targeting the education sector. In Q1 2022, educational organizations globally saw a 44% rise in weekly cyber-attacks compared to 2021. Additionally, US organizations faced an average of 812 weekly cyberattacks.
The surge in cyberattacks is tied to the rapid adoption of online learning tools during and after the Covid-19 lockdown. Moreover, many educational institutions lack a budget for cybersecurity measures, making them a soft target for hackers.
These challenges prompt vital questions for educational sector administrators.
- What’s the state of cyberattacks in the educational sector?
- What kind of attack vectors do malicious actors use?
- What are the consequences of poorly secured systems?
- How can we safeguard our institution from cyberattacks?
This article will answer these questions and provide actionable steps you can take to keep your institution safe.
Understanding the Landscape of Cyber-Attacks in Education
Cyberattacks in education are not new; however, recent activities have shown increased attempts to breach institution Infrastructure. Unlike other enterprises, the education industry struggles due to its limited budget, resulting in the neglect of strict cybersecurity measures for safeguarding information. Consequently, they are vulnerable to data theft by malicious actors who sell it on the dark web.
Moreover, the educational sector collects multiple data sets, ranging from students, parents, and staff personal, financial, academic, and sensitive medical information, making it a target for malicious hackers. Recently, the Los Angeles Unified School District suffered a breach that exposed the health data of about 2000 students. The leak, linked to the Vice hacker group, also exposed affected individuals’ driver’s licenses and social security numbers.
The Medusa ransomware gang also breached Minneapolis Public Schools in 2023, exposing 500 students’ data to demand a $1 million ransom. Other major hacks have hit educational institutions, with losses ranging from $50,000 to $1 million per attack.
Vulnerabilities Unique to the Education Sector
The educational sector isn’t different from others regarding threat vectors. Hackers often employ key vectors in educational cyberattacks, such as ransomware, malware, and phishing. However, specific vectors lose Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) access and exploit vulnerabilities, granting malicious actors file access. Let’s further explore these vulnerabilities.
Phishing emails are a frequently employed attack vector by cybercriminals. This type of email masquerades as legitimate information from a source – IT department, counselors, teachers, or administrator – within the institution. The goal is to trick recipients into clicking an embedded link that installs malware on their system. Once installed, the malware remains hidden while encrypting the institution’s server data. Malicious actors use this access to demand ransom or sell stolen data on the dark web.
The malicious website hack acts similar to a phishing email. However, the hackers use identical domains or resource websites instead of email. Hackers can clone an educational institution’s website and use a similar domain with negligible differences to trick students into entering their login details.
In other methods, they can be disguised as resource websites where students can download materials. Unknown to the users, these materials might have malware embedded to give hackers access to the system. On successfully infiltrating the system, the malware replicates and starts to encrypt files or creates a backdoor for other harmful activities.
Supply Chain Attacks
Supply chain attacks utilize unpatched and outdated software vulnerabilities in trusted third-party tools to access your network. Hackers often insert malicious code into software to find ways to compromise your network. For instance, most institutions use video streaming devices connected to the organization network.
Hackers can infiltrate such tools and plant malicious code, which only becomes active when plugged into your system. Since these tools are trusted and have admin-level access to some sections of your network, the malware can infect it and cause havoc in the future.
A recent report by McAfee revealed a vulnerability in Netop Vision Pro, a remote classroom management system. During the test by McAfee, they noticed that all network traffic was unencrypted, giving it access to malicious actors. They also identified a potential threat in the chat function that allows hackers to disguise themselves as teachers and send information to students.
Consequences of Cyber-Attacks on Education
The consequence of data breaches in the educational sector is as devastating as others. Firstly, these hacks disrupt learning activities, prolonging the academic term or year.
In addition, disruption in learning can result in financial losses for the organization. Paying ransoms, legal fees, securing data, and more, escalate the financial burden. In some instances, schools completely shut down after a cyberattack.
There’s also the case of reputation damage, as most parents will withdraw or become skeptical about enrolling their children in a school with a history of cyber breaches.
Furthermore, students, parents, and staff might become victims of identity theft due to personal data made public on the dark web. Cyberattack also creates privacy breaches when hackers expose sensitive data like medical details on the internet.
Lastly, schools often encounter lawsuits and fines for non-compliance with data protection laws. For example, in 2019, a parent filed a class action lawsuit for her daughter in the wake of the Pearson breach that exposed over 1 million students’ data. Although the case was dismissed because the parent lacked standing to bring the proposed class action, the possibility of losing millions from such cases is always imminent.
What Can Schools Do to Prevent Cyber Attacks?
Educational administrators must take steps to mitigate cyberattack impacts. Below are some a few we recommend
The educational sector must take practical steps to form collaborative groups for information-sharing efforts. These groups can help the less-equipped institution understand cybersecurity best practices implemented by other organizations. It will also serve as a space to discuss policies that can help maintain a central security activity across the district for a better foundation.
Implement constant cybersecurity training programs to inform your staff, students, and parents of the latest security threats. This training should also demonstrate secure practices to ensure all access points are safe from cyber infiltration.
Adopt Incident Response Plan:
Implement an incident response plan outlining steps for addressing cybersecurity threats. With a plan in place, schools can quickly recover from an attack by mitigating the effects once it’s detected.
Mandate multi-factor authentication for all network users:
Adopting this approach ensures that users’ credentials are safe from third-party access resulting from negligence.
Adherence to data laws:
Implement data protection requirements to maintain compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws. These laws specify regulatory standards for companies’ personal and health information disclosure. Failure to comply with these laws might cost you a fine of up to 4% in annual returns. Some approaches include integrating secure tools, reporting cybersecurity breaches early, and conducting regular security audits. In addition, when a vulnerability is identified, it should be patched or fixed immediately to avoid unauthorized access from hackers.
Partner with Cybersecurity Professionals
Partner with a reputable cybersecurity firm like CyberClan to establish robust security protocols. Such a partnership will enable you to implement risk management, incident response plans, post-breach remediation, and managed security protocols. Combining this expertise with sophisticated tools helps you protect your network and avoid significant financial losses.