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#school | #ransomware | Commentary: Cybersecurity breaches at Texas schools cost taxpayers millions


According to data assembled by the K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center, no state has experienced a greater number of publicly disclosed school cybersecurity incidents in recent years than Texas. These incidents have resulted in the theft of millions of taxpayer dollars, widespread destruction and outages of school IT systems, and large-scale identity theft.

Consider that Manor Independent School District lost $2.3 million in a targeted email phishing scam in January. In similar attacks last year, nearly $2 million was stolen from Crowley ISD, while Henderson ISD lost more than $600,000.

Malicious actors have employed other digital weapons, such as ransomware, to extort money from at least a half dozen Texas districts since 2017. The most recent incident, in Port Neches-Groves ISD, resulted in a $35,000 bitcoin payment to cybercriminals in exchange for the digital keys to restore access to the district’s IT systems. And school vendors such as Pearson have experienced large-scale breaches of student data at the same time that thousands of Texas educators and administrators have had their identities and personal bank accounts emptied by cyberthieves.

Given that schools’ reliance on technology for teaching, learning and operations will continue to grow, trustees and administrators should embrace their responsibility to safeguard their school communities from emerging digital threats.

The passage of Senate Bill 820 by the Texas Legislature encourages school districts to put in place commonsense security controls, but it falls short of guaranteeing such controls will be implemented effectively or in proportion to the threats facing districts.

If school trustees and administrators are to make real progress in managing cybersecurity risks, they will need to foster better information-sharing and cooperation across districts; make the case in their communities for spending time and resources on building cybersecurity awareness, tooling and expertise; and embrace the legislative requirement to develop meaningful cybersecurity policies and plans.

While there is variability in how school districts use and rely on technology, there are more similarities in terms of security challenges than differences. Since cybercriminals target school districts nationwide with the same scams, it is imperative IT leaders in school districts collaborate. Indeed, one of the biggest challenges in responding to these threats is the veil of secrecy surrounding school cybersecurity.

Any meaningful response to the issue will also require more money and more expertise. While state — and even federal — resources would undoubtedly help, school districts will likely have to look for other funding and sources of support. Students, parents and teachers should all be allies in this cause.

While educational technology offers exciting opportunities for students and teachers, its use introduces new risks. While the passage of SB 820 is laudable, it is only one step in a much longer journey to keep Texas school districts cybersecure. In the end, we won’t see fewer successful phishing attacks, fewer ransomware incidents or fewer data breaches until all superintendents and trustees jointly embrace their cybersecurity governance responsibilities.

Doug Levin is president and founder of the K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center (k12cybersecure.com), which was launched in 2018 to shed light on the emerging cybersecurity risks facing public schools.



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