As students head back to the classroom, K-12 district leaders face the daunting task of preventing and containing cybersecurity threats against their districts. School systems have become a popular target for cybercriminals in recent years due to their increasing reliance on technology and abundance of data. It’s a growing problem that has costly consequences for school districts of all sizes across the country, already struggling with tight budgets, staff burnout and retention, and a myriad of other challenges.
types of attacks
Cybersecurity has long been a concern for school districts, but these concerns have intensified over the past two years. More and more DDoS attacks are targeting schools with the aim of shutting them down, and some of them have even been orchestrated by students. Successful attacks can take a school district offline for several hours and seriously disrupt the learning environments for student body and faculty.
Ransomware attacks are also prevalent in education due to their profitability and headlines. In a ransomware attack, hackers enter a district’s network and encrypt the data so that the district cannot access it. They usually demand a hefty ransom to decrypt the data, often millions of dollars, and if refused, sometimes post the data publicly online, exposing students’ and staff’s personal information.
Given all of these factors, a single cyberattack can bring an educational institution to its knees, jeopardizing student data, disrupting school operations, and crippling networks. The financial impact of cyber attacks on schools is equally devastating. On average, it costs educational institutions $2.73 million to fix the effects of a ransomware attack, including the cost of downtime, data recovery, device and network repairs, security updates, and missed opportunities.
Why are cybercriminals attracted to schools?
K-12 school districts may not be the first target that springs to mind when thinking about cyber attacks, but for cyber gangs, schools can be a gold mine.
First, school districts house an enormous amount of sensitive data. Often the names, addresses, birthdays, and social security numbers of students and staff can be found in a school’s database, making it very attractive for an attacker to either steal the data and sell it on the dark web, or encrypt and encrypt it from the district demand an exorbitant ransom to regain access.
Additionally, most school districts rely heavily on technology and its networks to run their day-to-day operating systems. The shift to distance learning during the pandemic also accelerated reliance on digital learning. Teachers and students, many now equipped with 1:1 devices, are using online learning tools and resources to improve lessons, complete exams and communicate outside of the classroom. Aware of this growing dependency, hackers exploit network vulnerabilities to disrupt learning and district operations.
In addition, many school districts face labor shortages and job competition with companies. Cybersecurity professionals play a crucial role in ensuring that critical network infrastructure and complex information systems remain secure. However, with 30% of the current workforce planning a career change, the future of cybersecurity in schools is at stake.
How can schools defend themselves against increasing cyber attacks?
Because cyberattacks are a very real threat to K-12 schools, it is important for districts to take a proactive approach to their cybersecurity posture. Now is not the time to react and wait for an attack; It’s time to take action. Here are three strategies schools should consider to protect their digital learning environments:
1. Build an ecosystem of security solutions with unified threat management
With unified threat management, schools can ensure all security solutions work together to protect against internal and external threats. Unified Threat Management provides critical visibility and control over a network through a co-management portal that enables a holistic approach to security. As a result, the security infrastructure is simplified as security and network functions are combined into one ecosystem, making threat detection and response easy to detect and execute.
2. Integrate automated DDoS mitigation to protect against network attacks
A key part of combating DDoS attacks is DDoS mitigation and scrubbing, which proactively scans and analyzes a network for attacks and removes malicious packets. A DDoS mitigation service with automated capabilities allows schools to adopt a “set it and forget it” mentality as it activates in real-time without requiring a user to analyze a threat and then submit a mitigation request. With DDoS mitigation in the background, school can continue as usual without worrying about losing internet connection.
3. Segment network traffic to isolate the threat
Today’s influx of cyber threats has made it increasingly time-consuming and difficult to protect data and networks from malicious attacks. Leveraging intelligent network design and tools to secure district sites can greatly improve an organization’s ability to isolate security concerns as they arise and improve reporting and visibility across the network. Network traffic segmentation keeps the network design manageable while reducing the attack surface and enabling faster, strong mitigation options.
With the school year in full swing, the ongoing cybersecurity crisis should be viewed as a universal issue that is being addressed not only by education leaders, but also by policymakers and government leaders, education technology partners and providers, school boards and community members. Fostering district and community-wide conversations on this critical topic, and developing and implementing cybersecurity strategies, can help K-12 school districts prevent and mitigate cyberattacks.