It’s a common misconception that high-profile cyber attacks are reserved for the major corporations and government agencies of the world. The unfortunate reality is that cyber security is a major concern for all types of institutions and businesses, including schools, colleges, universities and other educational institutions. In fact, the education sector was the second worst hit by data breaches in 2021, behind the public sector, according to the GDPR.
These institutions hold a plethora of sensitive data and information that can be compromised if an IT system, network or infrastructure is disturbed. Digital threats can manifest in numerous different ways, many of which aren’t easy to spot without proper education, training and security protocols in place. It’s clear that more needs to be done, such as implementing new and secure digital processes.
If schools are to have any hope of safeguarding sensitive data from digital threats, it’s critical that they understand some of the most common risks to student and faculty information, and take the necessary steps to mitigate them.
Why are schools targeted by cybercriminals?
Schools and educational institutions hold a vast amount of personal information that is often sought after by cybercriminals. This can include, but is not limited to:
Personally identifiable information about students, staff, and IT systems
Financial data and bank details
Medical records and sensitive or personal information
Academic and national insurance details
Addresses, phone numbers and private contact information
As the education sector (at high schools) and as a whole begin to adopt a broader range of digital learning technologies, tools and systems, it’s only natural to assume that much of this information would be situated within schools’ IT networks and cloud platforms. However, while there is reason to suggest that this infrastructure is secure, it only offers optimum protection if schools are taking steps to keep it as robust as possible. The cloud does present malicious actors and hackers with ample opportunities to target them and attempt to compromise sensitive data, and if defences are not solid and reliable, data will be compromised more easily.
Cyber attacks on schools and the education sector can cause substantial financial losses and also severely damage the reputation of an institution. Therefore, schools must treat sensitive data with the same level of safeguarding as they would for every student’s safety and security.
With many cyber security threats looming, education facilities will need to understand the common risks they are prone to. Knowing what each threat entails and how to protect your data from being compromised will allow you to develop an effective cyber security strategy and strengthen your defences.
In a phishing attack, a malicious actor will disguise themselves as a trusted entity and exploit an unsuspecting user into clicking links, downloading attachments, or providing sensitive information such as passwords, login details, student details and much more. Phishing attacks usually materialise through email or social media and are common ways for cybercriminals to access school networks, systems and data.
Phishing attacks are quite difficult to identify and block, especially when looking at the seemingly innocuous and convincing messages that are received from individuals that would otherwise appear trustworthy.
How to mitigate phishing threats
Educating your students and staff on how to recognise phishing messages is a crucial first step in improving resilience to these attacks. Students and teachers will likely be using their own devices when on school premises, so it’s reasonable to assume that some will not be as clued into sufficient security protection.
Enabling multi-factor authentication (MFA) is also vital in preventing phishing scams. In this case, students and teachers will need to validate their request to access a school’s systems, usually in the form of a validation code, email or text message. Update all your school devices regularly to ensure the operating system is adequately patched, as this is a common entry point for hackers. Implement a strong password policy across your estate as well.
Ransomware attacks pose a severe threat to schools, colleges and universities, where malicious software (malware) encrypts files and demands payment for decryption. If ransomware were to infect a school system, files would likely be locked instantly until the ransom is paid, thus disrupting operations. Schools and universities hold large amounts of valuable data, which is why hackers often use ransomware as blackmail.
Paying a ransom is risky, but refusing to pay can often be equally damaging for a school. Ransom sums can be extortionate, and these attacks can compromise entire systems and networks for long periods, making it very difficult to conduct normal operations.
How to mitigate ransomware threats
Preventing ransomware begins with a robust firewall, antivirus and internet security system installed across all school devices. It’s also vital that regular backups of data and information are run, so should a system be compromised, an emergency or disaster recovery operation can be made easier. Systems can be restored to the point when the most recent backup is run. For large campuses, it might be worth partnering with a reliable cyber incident response provider that can monitor all vulnerabilities across your estate regularly, and conduct simulations and tests to ensure its stability.
3. Brute force and DDoS attacks
Brute force attacks involve hackers using a range of automated tools that attempt to guess login credentials to gain access to critical accounts and systems. A brute force attack is very much a case of trial-and-error, but considering how quickly passwords and logins can be guessed, access can be granted if a password is not strong enough.
Distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks flood school networks and servers with ‘traffic’ to overload them and take them offline. While the institution attempts to bring the networks or servers back online, hackers use that as an opportunity to either steal data or attempt malicious hacks.
How to mitigate brute force and DDoS threats
As schools regularly keep information stored online, with logins often shared across an estate, a strong and unique password policy must be implemented. Ensure that each system or login has a unique password, consisting of a multitude of letters, numbers, special characters and symbols. Consider updating these passwords regularly to ensure optimum protection.
MFA can also help prevent brute force attacks by requesting an additional prompt from an authorised user to validate their access request. On top of this, limiting login attempts before an account is locked is also a good idea.
4. SQL injection attacks
Hackers often use SQL injections when attacking schools, in which they enter a piece of malicious code into a login page or contact form on your public website. This code enables the hacker to access protected data. Education facilities often have multiple places on their websites in which SQL injection code can be added.
How to mitigate SQL injection threats
The easiest way to prevent SQL injections is to ensure that your website is secure, patched, updated, and only gives valid privileges to authorised users on login pages. Working with an external IT or web design company can mitigate this type of threat.
Alternatively, you may wish to partner with an external penetration testing firm, in other words, a company that can conduct simulated SQL injections to assess where your vulnerabilities lie, not just on your website but in your entire cloud environment. From this, that firm can give you detailed, actionable advice on how to secure your data.
Schools evidently face numerous online threats so they must take notice and start taking steps to protect their data immediately. With the right cyber security strategy and approach, these risks can be exponentially minimised. Safety is everyone’s responsibility, and a strong, multi-layered cyber defence strategy is the best way for them to avoid becoming victims of cybercrime.
Dakota Murphey is a Brighton-based, established freelance writer with experience in business growth and a strong interest in all things digital. Aside from her love of writing, she loves good times with family and friends and admits to being a bit of a film buff.