The education sector has seen an alarming increase in ransomware attacks in the last few years. In fact, within the last three years there has been an overwhelming 48.8% increase in overall cyberattacks. The education sector now holds the top spot for targeted ransomware, ranking above both government and healthcare for the first time as the most impacted sector.
Let’s take a deeper dive to learn why the education sector is so attractive to hackers. What vulnerabilities make districts and other K-12 organizations so prone to attacks? What options do you have when it comes to protecting your data, your staff, and your community?
Why Do Hackers Target the Education Sector?
To start with, ease of access. Education institutions’ vulnerabilities often come from the size of their networks and how many people have access to internal systems. Unlike the government and private sector, you have an environment where it’s untenable to vet every person with access. Not only do you have an abundance of administrators and teachers with access, but also students, support staff, and parents. This makes networks very large with a variety of access points.
What Vulnerabilities Open Universities and K-12 Districts to Targeted Attacks?
Not only is the network large, with a variety of access points to exploit, but many people access these networks from personal computers. Oftentimes they lack password protection, utilize unsecured Wi-Fi, and are accessed within shared spaces. That is a recipe for vulnerabilities — and hackers know it. They know that it’s a matter of “when” they find a way into the system rather than “if.” That amount of access and information compiled in one network makes K-12 organizations undeniably attractive targets.
There are several techniques hackers use to infiltrate systems and gain access – from phishing attacks that send emails or text messages with hidden malware and viruses; to direct attacks using open computer terminals in computer labs or offices that can be hijacked using physical USBs or other direct methods. The number of users accessing the system, lax security awareness, and easy access to computers on the network can make it very difficult to stop hacking attempts.
What’s the Best Ways to Protect Your Data & Avoid Attacks?
We’ve established the “why” and “how” of what makes schools and districts of every shape and size prime targets for cyberattacks. The combination of opportunities and vulnerabilities makes for an attractive target for malicious hackers. And, it’s clear how those factors can contribute to the increased attacks seen year-over-year. But how can you protect your data, users, and networks?
Cloud hosting decentralizes your data, making it more difficult for hackers to lock down your system from a single centralized point. In many cases the hosting providers provide top-level onsite security in multiple locations that each house copies or partial copies of your data. These locations often host increased site security, including 24/7 surveillance, armed guards, limited access, and data encryption protocols on all their servers. This is a stark difference compared to many on-premise server configurations whose security can often be boiled down to a series of locked doors with little to no oversight.
Backup & Recovery
Backing up all your data down to the file level can also help prevent your data from being taken hostage and ransomed back. Having a secure backup of your data and systems that can be spun up on-demand can remove leverage from ransomware attacks. Hackers who hope to keep your systems locked out and inaccessible will be disappointed when you can recover your critical data and patch the exploited vulnerabilities quickly.
Passwords & Authentication
Locking down systems and access points is a great practice for boosting your cybersecurity. Being adaptive and having the correct tools to protect your organization when an event happens allows you to prevent and recover. However, being proactive and stopping events before they even start is always the best way to protect your systems and data.
Traditionally, password protection has been the main defense used at the everyday user level to prevent attacks. But passwords alone, even with all the special parameters, are still exploitable and have become easier for hackers to crack. That’s where Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) can really add to your security to prevent unwanted access. MFA provides a secondary method to guarantee whoever is logging in is legitimate. This secondary method is most commonly in the form of sending an email or text message with a one-time link or passcode needed to complete the authentication process.
As we’ve explored, the education sector’s vulnerability to cyber attacks has reached alarming levels. It now holds the unfortunate distinction of being the top target for ransomware, surpassing even government and healthcare for the first time. Schools and districts are particularly vulnerable due to their vast networks, numerous access points, and the challenge of vetting all individuals with access. To counter these threats, embracing cloud hosting, robust backup and recovery practices, and implementing Multi-Factor Authentication are essential steps toward safeguarding data, staff, and communities from the growing menace of cyberattacks.