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The education sector is becoming increasingly targeted by cyber attackers. Educational institutions often have relatively weaker cybersecurity measures compared to other sectors because they often have limited budgets and resources allocated to cybersecurity and coordinating and enforcing consistent cybersecurity measures across multiple departments can be challenging.

Specifically, this sector is being targeted by the cyber attack method of ransomware, which is extortion software that can lock you out of your network and computer. Hackers would then demand a ransom for its release. Ransomware attacks on educational institutions increased by 275% globally in 2022. The majority of educational institutions have limited budgets, outdated systems, and a focus on accessibility which makes them easy prey for attackers.This reinforces the need to have successful protection plans in place.

Why are schools increasingly targeted?

Schools and universities are huge powerhouses of data which hold incredibly sensitive information, making them a likely target for bad actors. According to the 2019 audit by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and the National Grid for Learning, nearly 80% of schools in the United Kingdom have experienced at least one cyberattack. As educational institutions often have a great deal of users (think faculty, students) in contrast with a small IT team, it makes it a much more attractive target in the eyes of hackers.

With the pandemic, universities were hard hit to acclimatise and had to rapidly adapt to digitally transform their online ecosystems. This shift to online learning inevitably meant more people were using devices outside of the school’s secure network. This thinned the security surface of most schools and universities, increasing the chance of systematic vulnerabilities which could allow hackers to slip in, often undetected. As of 2022, 93% of students own a smartphone and laptop PC. The increase in the amount of IoT devices used also have the potential to act as a gateway for bad actors only increases the danger posed to the education sector.

Are there different attack types being used?

It is clear that not only has this sector seen an increase in cyberattacks, but hackers are increasingly using varied methods to gain unlawful access. Ransomware remains a major threat, as it has the ability to completely shut a school down, a vital source for many, further increasing the chance of payout.

But other forms are gaining popularity, as more see this sector as underequipped, underprepared and ready to overpay. Encrypted attacks in 2022 spiked 411% and the number of IoT malware attacks rose 146%. IoT malware is when hackers target a device such as sensors, gadgets or appliances, with malicious software designed to gain access and damage your device.

Cryptojacking is a form of malware that secretly infects a computer, leveraging its processing power to mine for cryptocurrency. Cryptojacking is an unethical practice as it violates the principles of consent and privacy, as the attackers exploit someone else’s resources for personal gain without their knowledge or permission. Cryptojacking attacks on the education sector were slow in comparison to other attack types but it remains an ever-growing threat.

This is because cryptojacking malware remains easily undetected and slowly syphons off the processing power of devices, slowing down the entire network as a result. But, what all of these attacks prove is that bad actors are ever-evolving and will use the latest tactics to gain unlawful access to devices and networks. This puts many at risk and the education sector must be vigilant.

What can the education sector do to protect themselves?

For the education sector to adequately protect its data, applications and users, they must first put cybersecurity at the forefront – from a budgetary and mindset perspective. To guard the ever-thinning security surface, schools must adopt a zero-trust framework. This involves continuously authenticating and validating all users and devices before granting access. Students and faculty alike must be educated on the importance of remaining secure. Gone are the days of simple one-word passwords. All those operating within the network must be educated on best practices, from multi-factor authentication (MFA) to regularly updating devices connected to the network. A united front must be presented by all in the sector to ward off potential attacks.

It is crucial for educational institutions to ensure that their users have the necessary tools and knowledge to safeguard themselves against security threats. Users play a crucial role in establishing a robust and secure network. By enforcing strong password policies and embracing other strong security measures, schools can provide users with an extra layer of protection, thereby enhancing their long-term safety. In light of the increasing use of cloud-based tools in the education sector, this is particularly important, as the network can be accessed from anywhere, by anyone, usually with just one password.

As the sector evolves, digital tools have become a fundamental part of education. From accessing online resources to managing attendance, the digital side of operations, particularly the networks, are essential for powering schools, but they also create a potential point of entry for malicious actors. One effective way to improve Wi-Fi security is to utilise a content filtering service, which checks requested websites against databases of potentially harmful sites and blocks access to those that are deemed unsafe.

As cybercrime escalates, educational institutions can’t afford to bury their heads in the sand. It’s only a matter of time before more schools become targets. That’s why it’s absolutely crucial for education providers to have an independent response and disaster recovery plan in place, ready for the worst-case scenario. Preparation and risk mitigation are essential, but a robust plan to counter cyber attacks is equally vital.

The education sector is a vital institution which sits at the very centre of our society. Students, teachers and parents alike need to be able to trust that their sensitive information is being kept safe. That starts with a security-first mindset and the correct practices in place: a strong framework and a secure contingency plan should the worst occur.

By Spencer Starkey, VP Sales, EMEA, SonicWall

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National Cyber Security