Hackers and educational leaders have one thing in common: They’re after data. Educational institutions have been building systems around data for years, and much of the information they collect and leverage is tops on a cybercriminal’s wish list. Student and staff personal data and the payment information of third-party providers are only some of the digital targets enticing attackers.
School administrators, educators, and IT staff must contend with a tricky balancing act: enabling network access to thousands of students, staff, and other stakeholders while keeping attackers out.
Here are some challenges keeping educational decision-makers up at night and ways to prevent or mitigate each threat.
Data Breaches and Unauthorized Access
Data breaches are a constant threat because hackers know each institution has a trove of valuable information, and the impact of a breach can be significant and include the following:
- Student Privacy Violation: Personal information of students, including names, addresses, social security numbers, and more, could be exposed, compromising the privacy and security of minors.
- Staff Privacy Breach: Similar to students, teachers, and staff members’ personal information can be exposed, leading to potential identity theft or other malicious activities.
- Disruption to Education: A data breach could lead to system outages or data loss that disrupts the regular functioning of the school, impacting the learning process.
- Legal Consequences: Schools are responsible for protecting student data under laws like FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act). A data breach could result in severe legal penalties and loss of trust from parents and the community.
- Loss of Financial Information: In many cases, schools store financial information related to tuition, meals, or other school-related fees. A data breach could expose this information, leading to financial fraud or theft.
- Use the information for unauthorized access to propagate malware that enables a future attack.
The consequences are sobering. Innocent students, parents, and school staff can become victims of identity fraud. In addition, third-party vendors may become the victims because a hacker gained access to their systems using the school they attacked.
Establishing a robust security system to protect your data and mitigate the risk of attacks is critical. An effective system can:
- Encrypt sensitive data (1).
- Limit access to sensitive areas of the network so only those who absolutely need to use them do.
- Use next-generation firewalls that monitor both threats and file behavior to detect potential issues.
Phishing and Social Engineering Attacks
Phishing often involves someone sending an email to a student or staff member while pretending to be a trusted individual or business. They then try to trick the person into divulging sensitive information. For example, an email may sound like it comes from an IT administrator claiming that the target’s account has been hacked. The email then tells the victim to click on a link that’ll lead them to a portal where they can update their login info and “secure” their account. But when they enter their “old” login info, the attacker collects it and uses it to access their account or a sensitive part of the network.
Most phishing involves social engineering, where an attacker uses the target’s emotions to motivate them to take action (2). For instance, in the example above, fear of being hacked is, ironically, the motivator used to fool the victim into providing sensitive info.
One of the most common results of a phishing attack is that an attacker gains access to financial accounts and then steals money, sending it to their account. But just as common—and potentially dangerous—is an attacker using stolen login credentials to gain access to a sensitive database and then stealing payment or identity information to be used for fraud.
Here are some strategies for raising awareness and preventing phishing and social engineering incidents:
- Show students and employees what phishing attacks look like.
- Tell them exactly what to do, who to call, or who to email if they suspect an attack.
- Instruct them to never provide sensitive information to anyone online.
- Conduct penetration tests to assess your institution’s readiness for a phishing or social engineering attack.
Malware and Ransomware Threats
Malware has become increasingly prevalent, especially because attackers have been making it available for sale online. A wannabe hacker can simply purchase pre-existing malware and use it against a school with little to no technical expertise.
But despite the ease with which an attacker can launch a malware attack, the effects can be devastating. For example, some malware enables access to sensitive databases that hackers exploit to exfiltrate information.
Other malware sets up a backdoor that a ransomware attacker can later use to steal data and then encrypt the educational institution’s network, servers, or individual computers.
To prevent and mitigate malware and ransomware, you can take the following steps:
- Establish strict identity and access management systems with multi-factor authentication and encryption.
- Segment your network using firewalls to prevent hackers who’ve gotten inside from moving laterally to other sensitive areas.
- Regularly change access administrative access credentials so an attacker with older, stolen credentials can’t use them to infect your system with malware or ransomware.
- Establish a backup system that regularly backs up the most sensitive and “business-critical” systems, such as transcripts, grading systems, and HR resources that contain sensitive data.
Insider Threats and Data Misuse
The risk of insider threats may be the highest in a K-12 setting. Not only do you have to tangle with tech-savvy students, but because so many people have network access, it’s easy to get hit with an attack stemming from someone leaving their credentials lying around or inside a stolen laptop or mobile device.
This is why it’s crucial to implement very strict access controls across your network. These should always include multi-factor authentication as well (3). For instance, on your school’s website, you may have a general page that everyone can see, one that parents can log into, and another that staff can access.
Suppose a new teacher jots down their access credentials on a sticky note and leaves it below their laptop’s keyboard. A student sees the information, memorizes it, then tries to log in. If you have multi-factor authentication in place, the attempted hack can be halted right then and there. For example, if the system sends a message to the teacher’s phone with a one-time access code, the hacker won’t be able to proceed with the attack.
To spot insider attacks, you can use a combination of the following techniques:
- Monitor user access and behavior on the network. You can set up alerts and blocks when users access certain digital assets.
- Set up alerts that the system automatically triggers when someone has too many failed login attempts.
- Monitor outgoing traffic to catch any insider data exfiltration attacks. For instance, you can set up an intrusion detection system (IDS) that sends an alert whenever there’s suspicious traffic, such as large amounts of data exiting the network (4).
Cybersecurity Awareness and Training
With the right K-12 cybersecurity awareness and training program, you can turn an institution full of human vulnerabilities into a cyber safety army. Each student and staff member can become a valuable set of eyes and ears as they keep on the lookout for attacks.
In a K-12 setting, education is a natural partner in the awareness and training process. For example, you can:
- Conduct school-wide cybersecurity training sessions.
- Have cyber awareness retreats where staff and educators learn how to prevent and mitigate threats.
- On a departmental level, dedicate portions of monthly or weekly meetings to cybersecurity training.
Budget and Resource Constraints
Budgets and resources, especially for K-12 institutions, are often out of the control of each school’s decision-makers. The school board or the city may decide who gets what, if, and when. This can make it hard to plan ahead for cybersecurity training and to purchase defensive technology.
To optimize the resources you have available, you can:
- Make sure all devices and security tools have the most up-to-date software installed.
- Train educators and staff regarding how to safeguard their login credentials.
- Be sure students and staff understand how to spot and prevent phishing attacks.
If you have little money available, you’ll want to prioritize your K-12 cybersecurity initiatives. Here are some that should rise to the top of your list:
- Implementing multi-factor authentication for access to all sensitive systems.
- Use your existing firewall tech to set up outgoing traffic monitoring protocols to stop data exfiltration attacks.
- Connect with the provider of any existing cybersecurity tech to make sure you’re maximizing its effectiveness. For example, if you have a next-generation firewall protecting a segment of your network, you can check with the manufacturer to make sure it’s set up to catch the maximum number of attacks.
You want to form partnerships with K-12 cybersecurity professionals who optimize your defenses to get the most from a limited budget. By hiring professionals, you can eliminate uncertainty when it comes to whether your team has the knowledge and skills to defend against attackers.
Breaches, phishing, malware, insider threats, training, and budgetary issues can weigh heavily on educational decision-makers minds. The good news is that you don’t have to lose sleep over these threats. You have plenty of options when it comes to how to mitigate and prevent attacks and vulnerabilities.
The key is to be proactive. By prioritizing cybersecurity and getting professional support, you can ensure the safety and integrity of your educational institution’s digital environments.
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