Defending the Classroom: Cybersecurity Threats in Education Systems

Duck, duck, duck… goose! In the classic schoolyard game, the ‘it’ player walks around a circle of seated children, gently tapping their heads and calling them ‘duck.’ Tension builds with every tap until the player chooses an opponent by calling them ‘goose.’ The ‘it’ player runs around the circle and tries to slide into the ‘goose’s’ place before being tagged. In the game, the children don’t need to defend themselves; the thrill of the chase is all in good fun, and there are no winners or losers.

However, when the game is played in the world of cybersecurity, where threat actors are ‘it,’ and schools and students are sitting ducks, the consequences of being chosen as the ‘goose,’ or attack victim, have serious repercussions.

In our increasingly interconnected world, where technology permeates every aspect of our lives, the education sector has become a prime target for cyber threats. While any organization with digital assets can become a victim, the vulnerability of educational institutions is compounded by the fact that their end-point victims are often young unsuspecting students who make easy targets.

Threats Against Educational Institutes Are Skyrocketing

In 2022, school districts faced an onslaught of ransomware attacks that impacted 1,981 schools, almost double the number compromised in 2021 and nearly six times the number of recorded incidents in pre-pandemic 2019. What led to this sharp rise in attacks?

The COVID-19 pandemic compelled the education system to undergo a rapid digital transformation. Schools had to adapt to remote learning and utilize various online tools to keep students engaged. While these digital technologies provided new avenues for learning, they also opened the door to cybersecurity challenges.

The sensitive data and personal information held by educational institutions make them valuable targets for data breaches and ransomware attacks. Many schools haven’t prioritized cybersecurity tools or awareness training, unlike large companies. Additionally, in the case of K-12 institutions, it’s easy for cybercriminals to target children who aren’t savvy regarding online dangers. These converge, creating a perfect storm for institutions and an ideal target for cybercriminals.

Importance of K-12 Cybersecurity and What’s at Stake

Beyond safeguarding sensitive data, cyberattacks can disrupt learning and have long-lasting effects on children. Exposure to cyberbullying and online harassment can lead to psychological distress and emotional trauma, affecting their mental well-being and overall development.

If a child’s identity is stolen, they can be impacted for years. Bad actors can use the information to open fraudulent bank accounts, apply for credit cards, or take out loans in a child’s name. As a result, the child may unknowingly accumulate debt, impacting their ability to secure loans or credit in the future when they need it for essential purchases, such as a car or a home.

The list of dangers and potential damage goes on and on.

Last year, the infamous Vice Society ransomware group breached the Los Angeles Unified School District and stole 500 gigabytes of data. The group posted 250,000 files on the dark web, exposing social security numbers, tax forms, passports, invoices, and more. Most concerning were the folders labeled ‘convict,’ ‘violence,’ ‘bully,’ and ‘DACA,’ all containing personal and highly sensitive student information.

This year, hackers attacked the Minneapolis School District. On top of stealing teachers’ social security information, many files contained dossiers on children who were identified by name, birth date, and address. The files detailed medications, behavioral issues, and, most egregiously, alleged incidents of sexual abuse by teachers or other students.

School Systems Struggle With Limited Resources

One of the primary challenges in defending against cyber threats in the education sector is the lack of adequate resources. Many K-12 schools have minimal budgets for IT, let alone cybersecurity measures. This limitation creates visibility gaps, making it harder for schools to detect and respond to cyber incidents quickly.

In the US, it’s the Department of Education’s responsibility to coordinate cybersecurity efforts, but according to the Government Accountability Office, schools only receive minimal services such as online safety guidance and some cybersecurity products. However, no manpower to ensure the products are correctly configured, monitored, or maintained is supplied, paving the way for attacks to happen through unpatched software or conventional, unconventional, or accidental backdoors.

The FERPA and GDPR Regulations in Education

To address the privacy and security concerns related to student data, governments have implemented regulations. For example, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) in the US protects the privacy of student education records, and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU sets strict standards for the processing and protection of the personal data of EU residents, including students.

Educational institutions must adhere to these regulations to ensure the privacy and security of student information. Failure to comply exposes schools to legal and financial repercussions and jeopardizes the trust parents and students place in these institutions. Even with consequences, though, many schools remain helpless when it comes to preventing, identifying, and mitigating breaches.

Best Practices for K-12 Cybersecurity

Bolstering cybersecurity defenses in the education sector starts with adhering to best practices and employing modern security solutions. Some fundamental cybersecurity measures include:

  • NextGen Anti-virus and EDR Solutions: Next-generation anti-virus, which uses behavioral analysis and machine learning algorithms to identify malware, coupled with Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) capabilities, can proactively detect and block sophisticated threats.
  • Firewalls: Robust firewalls help protect networks from unauthorized access and prevent data breaches.
  • DNS Filter: Implementing a DNS filter can block access to malicious websites and prevent malware infections.
  • Whitelisting: Limiting the software and applications that can run on school systems reduces the risk of malware infiltration.
  • Systems Hardening: Configuring systems with security in mind helps minimize attack surfaces and makes them less susceptible to exploits.

While having these solutions are steps in the right direction, continuous monitoring is an indispensable component of a robust cybersecurity strategy. Schools without internal IT and security teams should consider utilizing a Security Operations Center (SOC) like CYREBRO, which can provide 24/7 monitoring and response capabilities. The benefits of a SOC include enhanced threat detection, rapid incident response, and access to a team of cybersecurity experts should an incident occur.

Safeguarding the Future With Cybersecurity Solutions

Now that technology is deeply intertwined with education systems, a stringent cybersecurity strategy is a necessity. The vulnerability of educational institutions cannot be ignored, given the significant risks to student data, safety, and the continuity of learning.

Schools must prioritize cybersecurity awareness and implement comprehensive solutions to defend the classroom effectively. By adopting next-gen security tools, adhering to relevant data protection regulations, and utilizing a SOC, schools can significantly reduce the risk of cyber incidents and safeguard the future of the next generation.

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