While educational institutions are not often the first organizations we think of as victims of cyberattacks, it’s more common than you may currently believe. For example, EdTech reported that there have been 855 cyber incidents since 2016 and were 348 in 2019 alone, a number nearly three times higher than the year before, 2018.
But many questions remain — Why has there been such a large increase in attacks on the education sector? What are these attacks after, anyway? And how do these attackers accomplish their nefarious goals?
In this blog from PlexTrac, we’ll be combing through the education industry as a whole to get answers to these burning questions. Read more to learn why attacks have risen. Read more to understand what these attackers look to take from their victims. And read more to hear the most common tactics attackers use to succeed against the good guys.
Surprisingly, there’s a very easy answer to this question. The answer is (a lack of) money. The honest truth is that many attackers view the educational sector as an “easy target.” This distinction is because schools and school districts do not invest as heavily in cybersecurity when compared to other industries. A smaller monetary investment often means weaker defenses, signalling an opportunity for easy victory for bad actors constantly on the hunt for valuable data.
In addition to a severe monetary shortage, many school districts also lack the resources required to build a strong security posture. In fact, plenty of school districts don’t even have employees dedicated strictly to cybersecurity. This absence of experts leaves the responsibility for patching a security program to technology and security novices without the knowledge or experience to effectively manage a cybersecurity program.
Building a cybersecurity program is no easy task. It requires a hefty investment from both a personnel and tool perspective — an investment many school districts cannot afford to make. The end result? A large breadth of school districts under attack.
You’re probably thinking, “What do these attackers want when attacking schools and universities?” Most schools, especially in the United States, are not considered for-profit, so if not money, what’s the endgame? The answer to this question varies and often is tied to what school is under attack.
For example, a prestigious school known for its academics and high quality educational experience can take a big reputational hit by having their network compromised. Individuals that hear this news may decide to attend another school if they feel that their information is vulnerable to compromise or their educational experience susceptible to sabotage. The hit on a school’s reputation may decrease their total attendance numbers, lowering the funding they have to pay teachers, build new facilities, invest in modern educational practices, and so on.
Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted a large amount of classroom learning to a virtual setting. This shift, plus a global investment in cloud storage and IoT devices, create a perfect storm for attackers seeking data. Universities house a bevy of valuable information, including personal information, endowments, and even groundbreaking research data — information that’s now more attainable than ever before.
We now know why the education sector is a hot zone for cyberattacks and what these attackers target. But what are the tactics most common to the industry? Below are some of the most pressing threats to the education sector by bad actors and some ways you can protect yourself and your institutions.
Many schools in today’s world use cloud-based platforms to teach in a virtual setting. These platforms allow educators the ability to connect with their students, share assignments and feedback, and much more through the Internet. However, if these cloud solutions are not stored by the school themselves and instead are stored by third parties, the overall threat landscape expands greatly. Personal identifiable information (PII), financial information, and operational data are of great interest to attackers, so it’s important to vet your cloud provider for their reliability or use your own data center instead.
Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) Attacks
DDos attacks have grown massively in numbers over the past few years. These attacks can be especially devastating for the education sector as the system’s online system and records can be sabotaged, crippling daily operations. DDos attacks work by flooding the network with spam and data, which can overload and completely shut down the network. Utilizing advanced firewalls and anti-virus software is key to minimizing the effectiveness of these attacks, and penetration testing will help your team identify gaps in your defenses.
Phishing is one of the most effective strategies that attackers use to enter your network. The most novice attempts to phish can easily be snuffed out, but more advanced strategies position emails and messages in ways that are hard to differentiate from legitimate messages. In addition, students who are unaware of cyber risks may click the links without much thought, jeopardizing your entire network. One of the best ways to combat this risk is by teaching cyber awareness at your school/university. The combination of this training and the use of software that identifies and flags questionable emails is a winning duo for the prevention of phishing.
Malware is defined as “any software intentionally designed to cause damage to a computer, server, client, or computer network.” Malware is a blanket term that includes ransomware, viruses, worms, adware, and more. One of the best ways to defend against malware is requiring your students to have up-to-date software prior to connecting to a school’s network. This precaution will limit the number of attack vectors for malware to exploit.
Unsecured Personal Devices
One of the most common entrances for attackers in education is through unsecured personal devices. Laptops, smart phones, tablets, smart watches, and more. Every student has at least one, and more likely multiple, devices on them at all times. In addition to students’ devices, professors, visitors, and other employees all have devices of their own. The more devices on a network, the more vulnerable a network becomes. To combat this problem, only allow verified devices on your networks and conduct regular (and thorough) security assessments on your network.
Overall, the massive rise in cyberattacks on the education sector remains a giant concern. Attackers see the industry as an easy target with many precious assets ripe for the picking. However, despite these troubling facts, institutions and individuals in the industry have many precautions and proactive measures they can take to protect themselves.