Cyber Threats to the Educational Sector and How to Prevent Them

While schools may not seem like the prime victims for cyber threats, the education sector is actually one of the most targeted industries for cyber crime. 

In June of 2021, educational organizations were the target of more than 6.1 attempted malware attacks, whereas private businesses only experienced about 900,000 attacks.

So why is the educational sector such a target—and what can you do about it?

How Big Are the Cyber Threats to the Educational Sector?

According to a study by Verizon in 2021 that investigated over 29,000 data breaches, education was one of the top 5 industries affected by cyber crime. Especially with the rapid move to online school because of the COVID-19 lockdowns, we saw a huge spike in cyber threats to the education sector.

If we include the costs of downtime, repairs, and lost learning opportunities, the average cost of a ransomware attack against educational institutions was $2.73 million in 2020. And get this—that’s $300,000 more than the next-highest targeted sector (distributors and transportation companies).

The problem is real, and it’s big. So what are the weakest areas that cybercriminals are taking advantage of?

Security Challenges the Education Sector is Facing

Constantly Changing Online Users

Unlike a business in the private sector, educational institutions have hundreds to thousands of users (students) who frequently come and go. This can leave the system more vulnerable, as there are simply more opportunities for someone to make a mistake in protecting accounts, which could lead to an attack.

Lack of Resources

Educational organizations often have limited budgets. This is especially true for primary and secondary schools that are struggling to keep up with technology needs, let alone invest in cybersecurity solutions.

The lack of funding can lead to outdated systems and weak security measures, making it easier for cybercriminals to exploit vulnerabilities.

Prevalence of Personally Identifiable Information

Educational institutions regularly collect and store large amounts of personally identifiable information (PII) on their students and staff. This includes things like names, addresses, birthdates, Social Security numbers, and financial information.

This data is attractive to cybercriminals who can use it to commit identity theft or fraud. In some cases, attackers may even demand a ransom from the school in exchange for not releasing the sensitive information they’ve obtained.

Personal Devices

With the BYOD (bring your own device) trend, schools have to deal with the fact that many personal devices are connecting to their network every day. While this can be a benefit in terms of efficiency and collaboration, it also creates additional security risks.

If a student’s device is compromised, it can give attackers a way into the school’s network. From there, they may be able to steal data or infect other devices on the network.

Common Cyber Threats to Education Institutions

Phishing emails are one of the most common ways that cybercriminals gain access to an organization’s network. In a phishing attack, a hacker will send an email that appears to be from a legitimate source.

The email may contain a link that takes the user to a fake website where they are prompted to enter sensitive information. Or, it may contain an attachment that, when opened, installs malware on the device.

Once the attacker has access to the system, they can do things like install ransomware, which can encrypt the school’s data and hold it hostage until a ransom is paid. In some cases, attackers may also demand a ransom from individual students or staff members.

Another common threat is denial-of-service (DoS) attacks. In a DoS attack, the attacker floods the school’s network with traffic in an attempt to overload the system and prevent legitimate users from accessing it.

This can be especially damaging for an educational institution because it can prevent students from being able to complete their work or submit assignments. In some cases, attackers may also target specific individuals, such as the school’s IT staff, in an attempt to disrupt operations even further.

Preventing Cyber Threats to Your Educational Institution 

The cyber threats to educational institutions are major, but there’s a lot you can do to prevent an attack. Here are some steps you can take to protect your institution: 

  1. First, it’s important to have a strong security policy in place.This should include policies that lock down machines from having access to potentially risky sites..
  2. Next, you should provide security training for all staff and students. This can help them to recognize the signs of a phishing email or other attack and know what to do if they think they’ve been targeted.
  3. Third, to be prepared for the aftermath of an attack, schools should have an incident response plan in place for dealing with cybersecurity incidents. This should include who to contact and what steps need to be taken to contain the damage.
  4. Fourth, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so schools should invest in security solutions like firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems, and malware protection. These can help to protect the network from attacks and stop them before they cause any damage.

These solutions are where a reliable managed service provider for schools comes into play. An IT expert in the education sector, such as AIS, can provide cybersecurity tools and plans to help prevent and mitigate cybercrime. Partnering with an MSP can also free up a school’s in-house IT team to focus on more innovative and strategic tasks.

AIS Can Help

Keep in mind that no system is perfect and there is always a risk of being attacked. However, by taking the proper precautions, educational institutions can greatly reduce the chances of being targeted by a cybercriminal.

If you’re concerned about the cybersecurity threats facing your school, AIS can help. We’ll work together to learn about the specific threats that are facing your institution and put together an in-depth plan to address them. Fill out a request form on our site or give us a call to connect with one of our expert IT technicians and get started today.

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