Cyber-attacks continue to be on the rise and sadly educational institutions are not immune to these threats. Schools, colleges, and universities are increasingly being targeted by cyber criminals, and the consequences can be devastating.
Targeting Our Schools
The rise of digital learning has led to an increase in the amount of data stored by schools, including personally identifiable information (PII) of students, teachers, and staff. This PII can include student records, financial information, social security numbers, grades, health records and research data thus making school districts a prime target for cyber-attacks. As reported by The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, a minimum of 45 U.S. school districts experienced cyber-attacks in 2022.
One of the most common types of cyber-attacks on schools is ransomware attacks. In this type of attack, hackers gain access to a school's computer system and encrypt all of the data. They then demand a ransom in exchange for the decryption key, often threatening to delete or publicly release the data if the ransom is not paid.
Another common type of attack is phishing. This is where cyber criminals send emails to staff or students posing as a legitimate source, such as the school's IT department, and trick them into revealing their login credentials. With this information, the hackers can gain access to the school's network and sensitive data.
Cyber-attacks can have a significant impact on school districts, some of which go beyond the short-term consequences.
Impact On Learning
Cyber-attacks can disrupt classes by forcing districts to shut down, impeding student’s access to education and ultimately affecting student’s academic progress. In school districts where students depend on free meal programs, the consequence of school shutdowns can result in much more than lower grades. A report conducted by GAO concluded that the average loss of learning following a cyberattack ranged from 3 days to 3 weeks.
Impact On District Reputations
These attacks can impact the trust of staff, families, and students. When an attack happens, it often draws negative media attention to the school which can be difficult for a district to recover from. This kind of hit to a district’s reputation can result in difficulties with attracting and retaining both staff and students.
Impact Of Compromised Information
When attackers gain access to sensitive information through cyber-attacks, the ramifications can be significant. With access to PII, attackers can commit identity theft which can have long-term consequences to the victim’s credit. Financial fraud from district cyber-attacks can result in unauthorized charges and stolen funds. Sadly, cyber-bullying can also result from these security breaches, as the obtained personal or medical information can be used to bully or harass the victims.
As reported by GAO, monetary losses to school districts ranged anywhere from $50,000 to $1 million due to the need for computer hardware replacements and updated cybersecurity. The average recovery time ranged from 2 to 9 months.
How Schools Can Prevent Cyber Attacks
To prevent cyber attacks, schools need to implement strong security measures. This includes regularly updating software and systems, using strong passwords and multi-factor authentication, and training staff and students on how to identify and avoid phishing attempts. However, finding the funding and staffing for this level of security implementation can prove very difficult for many districts who already struggle with IT budget constraints.
Additionally, schools need to have a plan in place to respond to cyber-attacks. This includes having backups of all data, so that it can be restored in the event of an attack. Districts need to have a team in place to quickly identify and respond to any threats.
School districts are being forced to take action in order to protect themselves from the growing threat of cyber-attacks. By implementing strong security measures and having a plan in place to respond to attacks, schools can minimize the risk of being targeted and ensure the safety of their students and staff.
If you would like assistance in ensuring you are protected, please contact us and we would be happy to help.