As adoption of education technologies expanded in 2018, school networks were increasingly targeted by ransomware, data theft and denial of service attacks; the FBI even issued an alert warning this September as schools reconvened after summer break.
Every school year, new students join schools’ networks, increasing its risk of exposure. Combined with the growing complexity of connected devices on a school’s network and the use of open-source learning management systems (like Blackboard and Moodle), points of failure multiply. While technology can be a wonderful learning aid and time saver for the education sector, an insecure, compromised network will create delays and incur costs that can negate the benefits of new digital services.
Some of the biggest adversaries facing school networks are students and the devices they bring onto campus. For example, students attending college typically bring a number of internet-connected devices with them, including personal computers, tablets, cell phones and gaming consoles, all of which connect to their school’s network and present a large range of potential vulnerabilities. What’s more, the activities that some students engage in, such as online gaming and posting and/or trolling on forums, can create additional cybersecurity risks.
In an education environment, attacks–which tend to spike at the beginning of every school year–range from flooding the network to stealing personal data, the effects of which can be long-lasting. Per the aforementioned FBI alert, cyber actors exploited school IT systems by hacking into multiple school district servers across the United States in late 2017, where they “accessed student contact information, education plans, homework assignments, medical records, and counselor reports, and then used that information to contact, extort, and threaten students with physical violence and release of their personal information.” Students have also been known to DoS networks to game their school’s registration system or attack web portals used to submit assignments in an attempt to buy more time.
Plus, there are countless IoT devices on any given school network just waiting for a curious student to poke. This year we saw the arrest and trial of Paras Jha, former Rutgers student and co-author of the IoT botnet Mirai, who did just that. Jha pleaded guilty to not only creating the malware, but also to click fraud and targeting Rutgers University with the handle ExFocus. This account harassed the school on multiple occasions and caused long and wide-spread outages via DDoS attacks from his botnet.
What’s more, some higher education networks are prime targets of nation states who are looking to exfiltrate personal identifiable data, research material or other crucial or intellectual property found on a college network.
As it turns out, school networks are more vulnerable than most other types of organizations. On top of an increased surface attack area, schools are often faced with budgetary restraints preventing them from making necessary security upgrades.
Schools’ cybersecurity budgets are 50 percent lower than those in financial or government organizations, and 70 percent lower than in telecom and retail. Of course, that may be because schools estimate the cost of an attack at only $200,000–a fraction of the $500,000 expected by financial firms, $800,000 by retailers, and the $1 million price tag foreseen by health care, government, and tech organizations. But the relatively low estimated cost of an attack doesn’t mean attacks on school networks are any less disruptive. Nearly one-third (31 percent) of attacks against schools are from angry users, a percentage far higher than in other industries. Some 57 percent of schools are hit with malware, the same percentage are victims of social engineering, and 46 percent have experienced ransom attacks.