Cyber Threats

Cyber security threats in education institutions: the IT phantom menace

Discover the growing cyber security threats in education institutions. Explore strategies and tools to combat the dark forces of cybercrime.

July 26, 2023

If the Death Star's plans could be stolen by a bunch of young rebels, what about the strategic data of your educational institution? Is it safe enough?

Schools and universities are highly connected environments; every day, there are hundreds, or even thousands, of students, academics, and employees, walking around and using their laptops, tablets, and smartphones, accessing institutional data every single minute.

Unfortunately, we can't hire a group of the most ruthless bounty hunters of the galaxy or a 10,000 stormtroopers army to secure our data and devices (although that would be beautiful).

The importance of cyber security in education institutions

Hacker attacks and data leaking are exciting growth opportunities for the IT industry. We can build our own rebel alliance against external and internal threats. Gartner consultants, quoted by CNBC, stated that "the evolution of cloud and mobile technologies, as well as the emergence of the 'Internet of Things,' is elevating the importance of security and risk management as foundations. Smartphones present the biggest risk category going forward. They are particularly attractive to cybercriminals because of the sheer number of uses and multiple vectors of attack, including malicious apps and web browsing.”

That’s why computer security has grown as a rallying cry for IT Jedi knights in schools and universities, and solutions such as device tracking software, device protection, geofencing, and laptop security, amongst others, have become essential tools to face and prevent cyber attacks, laptops theft, and data leaks. Addressing broader cybersecurity risks in K-12 schools demands a concerted effort and strategic measures to fortify defenses and protect sensitive data from diverse threats.

(How to destroy a new Death Star is still under development. Too bad!)

Unveiling the revenge of the Sith hackers 

Unfortunately, schools, colleges, and universities are very attractive targets for data hackers and device theft. 

As Fred Cate, Jedi Master Director of the Indiana University Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research, told the University Business Magazine, "Higher education is particularly vulnerable because—in contrast to hacking targets like banks—college and university computer networks have historically been as open and inviting as their campuses."

Sith hackers also aim at educational institutions because they contain massive valuable databases and studies from prominent officials such as board members, researchers, and academics or key alumni information.

As academia has become the hub and repository of critical applied research in science, business, and technology, the threat to intellectual property is higher than an undergraduate student might think.

According to Check Point's 2022 Mid-Year Report, the education sector witnessed a staggering 44% surge in cyber-attacks compared to 2021. On average, organizations in this sector faced a daunting 2,297 attacks every week. The rising threat landscape poses significant challenges to safeguarding valuable data and devices in educational institutions.

Checkpoint’s CISO even mentioned that throughout 2022, their monthly threat index revealed a concerning truth—the education sector emerged as the most impacted industry. Cyber-criminals have found these attacks highly lucrative, signaling a pressing need for schools and colleges to brace themselves for an anticipated escalation in the frequency of these malicious assaults. 

Remember that Facebook, perhaps one of the most widespread cloud-based applications whose business value lies in sharing personal information, was spawned inside the walls of Harvard University. But in 2015, their campus suffered "a modest attack" affecting user credentials in eight of their schools, causing only a "little surprise."

The same happened at Rutgers University, which spent millions to strengthen its security after a series of denial of service (DoS) attacks against its networks and servers.

In the past, several other renowned universities in the United States were victims of hacker attacks. Penn State University's entire Engineering School had to be taken offline for an extensive investigation and clean-up of its network and systems. That incident was followed by similar news from the University of Virginia (UVA) of a targeted cyber attack against two officials whose work was connected with China.

According to Sophos' The State of Ransomware 2022 report, the K-12 education sector ranked at the top with the highest ransom payout rate of 53% in 2021. Surprisingly, despite the payments made, only a mere 2% of education institutions managed to recover all their data. 


Top cyber security threats in education institutions

Before implementing any security software on campus, IT teams in educational institutions must first analyze and determine the main threats to their data and devices.

1. Phishing

A successful phishing attempt can lead to unauthorized access to systems containing personal data, student records, or even intellectual property. This is achieved by tricking educators, students, and administrators into revealing sensitive information such as login credentials; a successful phishing attempt can lead to unauthorized access to systems containing personal data, student records, or even intellectual property. 

The switch to remote learning platforms due to the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified these risks, as institutions rely more heavily on digital communications, a common vector for phishing attempts. For instance, an email appearing to be from a legitimate source, such as a school or an e-learning service, may entice the recipient to click on a malicious link or download a harmful attachment. Consequently, these breaches could disrupt learning processes, compromise student privacy, and even lead to significant financial losses for educational institutions. Understanding in-depth on ransomware and phishing threats reveals the intricate risks faced by educational institutions and the measures required to combat them.

2. Data breaches

Data breaches can lead to violations of student and faculty privacy, exploitation of intellectual property, and financial theft. Furthermore, they can cause reputational damage to educational institutions, potentially undermining trust among students, parents, faculty, and partners. The disruption caused by such breaches could also significantly impede the learning process, causing setbacks and delays.

The risk is magnified in a remote learning environment as students, teachers, and administrators often use less secure personal networks and devices to access educational platforms and resources. 

3. Ransomware attacks

Ransomware is malicious software that encrypts an organization's data and holds it hostage until a ransom is paid. In an educational context, this could lock schools out of essential digital systems, including online learning platforms, student record databases, and administrative tools. 

With the advent of remote education, schools have become increasingly reliant on these systems, making them more vulnerable to such attacks. A successful ransomware attack can disrupt the educational process, delay administrative functions, and potentially lose vital academic data. 

Additionally, institutions may face hefty financial burdens from the ransom itself and subsequent cybersecurity upgrades, not to mention potential reputational damage. Such incidents highlight the importance of robust cybersecurity protocols in the age of digital and remote education.

4. Denial of service attacks (DoS)

A DoS attack involves overwhelming a network, service, or server with excessive requests, making it unavailable to users. This could mean disruptions to online learning platforms, institutional websites, student portals, or even email systems in an educational setting. 

With the shift to remote learning, any disruption to these digital services could lead to significant educational delays and complications, affecting students and teachers alike. For instance, students may be unable to attend virtual classes, access learning materials, or submit assignments, while teachers could be prevented from conducting classes or grading work.

5. Outdated software

Old versions of software often lack the latest security patches, making them prime targets for cybercriminals to exploit weaknesses and gain unauthorized access to systems. This could result in a variety of cyber attacks, including data breaches, ransomware, and phishing. In remote education, where schools rely heavily on digital tools and platforms for teaching, communication, and administration, outdated software could also lead to operational issues. 

It can hinder the smooth functioning of online classes, disrupt communication channels, limit the use of newer, more effective teaching resources, and create compatibility issues. Furthermore, constant troubleshooting of old software can divert resources from other important areas, creating a more challenging learning and teaching environment for students and educators.

6. Malware

In an educational setting, malware can lead to data breaches, compromising the personal information of students, faculty, and staff. It can also disrupt online teaching platforms, potentially halting instruction or affecting grading and administrative systems. 

In the era of remote education, where schools heavily rely on digital tools and online platforms, the spread of malware could lead to significant instructional delays, data loss, and privacy breaches. The recovery from a malware attack can be costly and time-consuming, potentially diverting resources from the core educational mission. 

Therefore, robust cyber hygiene practices and a proactive approach to cybersecurity are crucial for today's educational institutions.

7. SQL injection

An SQL injection attack involves the insertion of malicious SQL code into a query, often through an input data field in a website or application. This allows attackers to manipulate the query to gain unauthorized access to, modify, or delete data stored in the database. 

In the context of education, such attacks could compromise databases containing sensitive student information, academic records, or financial data. In remote education environments, where databases are routinely accessed for online learning and administrative purposes, SQL injection attacks can lead to data breaches, disruption of online classes, falsification of records, and potential privacy violations. 

Moreover, recovery and strengthening the cybersecurity measures after such an attack can be costly, diverting funds that could otherwise be used for educational purposes. This highlights the importance of secure coding practices and regular vulnerability assessments in educational institutions.


How to prepare and combat these threats in Education

As brave knights protect their kingdoms, we must prepare to defend our precious data and devices from these modern dangers.

This section will delve into essential strategies and practical tips to combat cyber security threats in educational institutions so we are equipped with the knowledge and tools to safeguard our valuable assets.

From guarding against hacker attacks to preventing data leaks, we'll navigate the path of security readiness step by step. By fostering a security-conscious culture and staying vigilant, we can create a safe and protected environment for all who seek knowledge within our walls.

So, gather your digital armor and join us to defend our educational realms. Let's face these challenges head-on and build a strong shield to thwart cyber assailants.

Incident response plan

An incident response plan outlines procedures to identify, respond to, and recover from cyber threats. It starts with preparation, which includes establishing a response team, identifying potential threats, and securing systems and data. Regular training sessions are conducted to ensure all educational community members, including students, teachers, and staff, are aware of best practices and understand their roles in cyber safety.

In remote education, where the network perimeter extends to homes and personal devices, the plan also encompasses secure access controls and the use of secure, updated software. Upon detecting a threat, the plan dictates immediate containment and eradication measures to minimize damage. This could involve isolating affected systems, removing malicious software, or changing access credentials. Following an incident, the plan involves a thorough analysis to understand what happened, learn from the situation, and make necessary updates to prevent future incidents.

Two-factor or multi-factor authentication

Instead of relying solely on passwords, which can be cracked or stolen, 2FA/MFA requires users to provide at least two forms of evidence to verify their identity.

This approach can be used to secure access to digital platforms, including learning management systems, email accounts, and administrative portals. Requiring this additional layer of authentication makes it significantly harder for attackers to gain unauthorized access, even if they have acquired a user's password. This can prevent a variety of cyber threats, such as data breaches, phishing, and unauthorized access to systems and sensitive information.

In remote education, where users often access systems from various devices and locations, 2FA/MFA is crucial in reducing the risk of cyber attacks. It ensures that even if an attacker manages to compromise one factor (like a password), they still cannot gain access without the second factor, thereby safeguarding the educational institution's digital resources and maintaining the integrity and confidentiality of the learning environment.

Access control implementation

In an educational environment, access control implementation could mean limiting access to certain systems and data to only authorized individuals, such as staff, faculty, or specific students.

Access control can be role-based, where permissions are assigned based on a user's role within the institution. For instance, a teacher might access grades and student data within their classes, while an administrative staff member might have broader access to student records. Discretionary and mandatory access controls can further specify permissions based on the owner's discretion or predetermined policies.

Effective access control is crucial in securing sensitive data in remote education, where learning and administrative tasks are conducted on digital platforms. It ensures that only authenticated and authorized users can access specific resources, mitigating the risk of unauthorized access, data breaches, and other cyber attacks. 

Software updates

This applies to everything from the operating systems on school-owned devices, the learning management systems used to administer courses, the software used for virtual meetings, and even the individual applications used by students and teachers. Ensuring all these elements are up-to-date helps safeguard sensitive information such as student data, grades, and personal information from breaches.

The need for regular software updates becomes even more significant in remote education. Students and faculty are accessing educational resources from various devices and networks, each with its potential vulnerabilities. Encouraging regular updates and ensuring that institutional software is kept up-to-date can help prevent cyber-attacks, ensuring the continuity of education and the security of the educational environment.

A strong security policy

A strong security policy should address specific needs like student data privacy, intellectual property protection, and the use of educational technology tools. It should clearly outline the roles and responsibilities of students, educators, and administrators in maintaining cybersecurity.

In the remote education environment, a security policy may include guidelines on using personal devices for educational purposes, securing home networks, and protecting sensitive data when studying or teaching from home. Furthermore, it should establish procedures for reporting and responding to cyber threats in a remote learning environment.

Anti-malware software

Anti-malware software can be installed on school-owned devices and servers to protect student records, staff information, and academic data. It provides real-time protection, scanning incoming files, emails, and downloads for potential threats and preventing their execution.

In remote education, where students and teachers are accessing learning materials from a range of devices and networks, anti-malware software becomes even more critical. Ensuring that all users' devices are equipped with updated anti-malware software can help protect against threats that could disrupt digital learning, compromise personal data, or impact the integrity of educational systems. Educating the educational community about the importance of regular software updates is crucial, as updates often include patches for new malware threats.

Data backup

Backups can protect a range of critical data, from student records and grades to lesson plans and research data. Regular backups ensure that even if the original data is compromised or lost, a recent copy is available for restoration, minimizing disruption to educational processes.

In the new world of remote education, where much of the educational activity takes place on digital platforms, maintaining regular and secure backups is paramount. These backups can be performed on local storage devices or in the cloud, offering further resilience by physically separating the backup data from the original data.

Awareness and training (students, teachers, and staff)

Cybersecurity education aims to equip students, teachers, and staff with the knowledge and skills to recognize and avoid potential cyber threats, such as phishing attempts, malware, or unsecured networks.

This could involve training on identifying suspicious emails, understanding the importance of strong, unique passwords, and recognizing the signs of a potential system breach. Regular updates on new and evolving threats can help the school community stay vigilant and informed.

It's essential that cybersecurity awareness extends to the remote education methodology as well. Training can include best practices for securing home networks, using approved software and platforms, and ensuring data privacy while participating in online learning.

Hiring a security service provider

A security service provider could help set up robust firewalls, monitor network traffic for unusual activities, implement intrusion detection and prevention systems, and ensure regular software updates and data backups. They can also assist in developing strong security policies and incident response plans and conduct cybersecurity awareness training for students, teachers, and staff.

In the remote education scenario, where the digital footprint of educational institutions expands to include a variety of devices, networks, and platforms, a security service provider can help maintain a high level of cybersecurity. They can implement secure access controls for digital resources, secure cloud-based platforms used for remote learning, and provide guidance on securing home networks. They can also offer solutions for securely using personal devices for educational purposes, a common occurrence in remote education.

Prey can greatly assist in preventing and mitigating cyber attacks in the educational sector, especially within the context of remote education. It offers robust security solutions and anti-theft services that are crucial for managing and protecting a wide array of devices used in educational settings.

Conclusion

We've unveiled the most common threats lurking in our educational realms' digital shadows. We've gathered intelligence on the vulnerabilities in our systems and applications.

But this is not a mission for a lone Jedi. Armed with the wisdom of our collective experiences, we stand united against these cyber adversaries; we have the power to fortify our defenses and shield our institutions from harm.

By embracing security awareness, patching vulnerabilities, and utilizing modern tools, we'll build a digital stronghold that defends against any attack, just like the unyielding fortresses of old.

Remember, this battle is never-ending, and our vigilance must remain sharp.

As we continue our journey, let us rise above the challenges and illuminate the path of learning and progress in education. May the force be with us, always.

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