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Combating Cyber Threats Against K–12 School Districts

From virtual classrooms to school field trips in the metaverse, it is clear that the educational sector is stretching beyond the confines of a physical experience. Unfortunately, with such rapid digital transformation in an otherwise traditional industry, malicious threat actors have proven relentless in disrupting and destroying critical assets that facilitate business continuity operations within school districts. State-sponsored attackers and cybercriminals target K-12 school districts to extort and deplete financial resources in today’s threat landscape. In addition, their focus includes:

●       Stealing access credentials to launch targeted malicious campaigns.

●       Exposing students’ and staffs’ personally identifiable information.

●       Enlisting classroom systems into a global botnet infrastructure used for criminal activities.

According to a study on cybersecurity in the education sector, ransomware affected 44% of US school districts, resulting in an average ransom payment of $112,435. Though most victims dispensed ransom payments, only an average of 68% of their data were ever recovered. Furthermore, many K-12 school districts never recover even after remitting ransom payments to the attackers.

This article will discuss the importance of leveraging a full-time cybersecurity partner to foster a proactive and robust security posture across US school districts.

The Impact of Cyberattack on K-12 School Districts

According to a K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center report, security experts noticed an 18% increase in cyberattacks, which impacted 408 schools in 2020 alone—and that includes just those publicly disclosed in the media. Unfortunately, many K-12 school districts lack the resources or expertise required to consistently align and re-align business goals with cybersecurity objectives to become formidable in today’s evolving cyber threat landscape.

In targeting classroom computer systems, threat actors deploy tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) to encrypt networks, hinder system access, steal and sell personally identifiable information, and more. For instance, in March 2021, Buffalo Public Schools suffered a massive ransomware attack leading to the cancellation of all in-person and remote classes.

In addition, the hackers stole sensitive student and employee data and destroyed school records. Although school staff was aware of cyberattacks’ rampancy, the absence of a full-time cybersecurity partner resulted in poor decisions, which increased recovery time. Below are some significant impacts of cyberattacks on K-12 school districts:

1.      Classroom Disruptions and Cancellations: as seen in the Buffalo case and many more, cyberattacks cause class disruption or even complete school cancellations. Online class invasions expose the students to hate speech, threats of violence, pornography, and more.

2.      Privacy Incidents During School Board Meetings: threat actors exploit system vulnerabilities, including technical glitches and network misconfiguration issues, to gain unauthorized access to private school board meetings—disrupting high-profile meetings and disclosing sensitive plans.

3.      Corruption of Email Communication Services: communication tools are typically the first targeted items in K-12 cyber incidents. Using malware, threat actors lure unsuspecting users into clicking on poisoned URLs laced with data-stealing or ransomware attack codes. An attack against a school district’s email systems often carries a 24–72 hour recovery time.

4.      Financial and Reputational Damages: ransomware attacks cause significant financial and reputational damage to any institution. Even after negotiating and paying the ransom, the Sheldon Independent School District lost around 10% of its files. Apart from financial losses, any cyberattack is a massive blow to a school’s reputation and its ability to protect student records against predatory cybercriminals.

What Makes K-12 Schools a Leading Target?

What makes K-12 school districts so enticing for threat actors? Firstly, many schools are the breeding ground for research and development projects of social, political, and national security significance. Therefore, school libraries and computer systems are filled with intellectual property data that threat actors could leverage in cyber espionage activities.

Secondly, the lack of cybersecurity awareness training and limited funding contributes to threat actors’ perception of school districts as “sitting ducks” or ‘low hanging fruits.” Virtual learning is becoming the norm: without proper cyber security training and minimal tech support, it is easy to find an entire ecosystem littered with system vulnerabilities that typically go unresolved for up to 120 days at a time.

Thirdly, introducing emerging technologies such as IoT processing, cloud computing, and virtual reality has increased data flow within schools’ IT ecosystems. The use of newer technologies expands the attack surface of educational institutions. Threat actors target data-rich environments such as school databases and website forms to retrieve accurate information needed to steal data and launch malicious campaigns. Some of the stolen information sold on the dark web includes social security numbers, dates of birth, email and home addresses, and other sensitive information.

Fourthly, outsourcing the development and management of distance learning tools and processes used by students, teachers, and another school staff introduces security gaps that go unnoticed for months and years. For instance, Toledo Public Schools were unaware of a data breach until student and employee records surfaced in the dark web six months after the incident.

Benefits of Combating Cyber Threats with a Full-Time Cybersecurity Partner

Malicious actors perceive educational institutions as soft targets since they often lack skilled cybersecurity experts to defend their systems. Therefore, this sector must build its cybersecurity resilience to protect against financial losses, prevent disruption, and safeguard all sensitive information. The most cost-effective way to achieve this goal is by collaborating with a reliable cybersecurity partner.

A cybersecurity partner improves an institution’s security posture and helps combat cyber threats against its infrastructure. Below are some short- and long-term benefits of collaborating with a cybersecurity partner:

1.      Robust Security Posture: the complex IT ecosystem of the K-12 school district requires proper cybersecurity experts to deal with any gaps or vulnerabilities. A cybersecurity partner can help identify any weaknesses and help improve overall safety.

2.      Increased Preparedness: collaborating with a cybersecurity partner improves preparedness for all kinds of cyberattacks. For example, this collaboration’s awareness training helps identify phishing attempts and stop the attacks before they commence.

3.      Rapid Incident Response: creating an Incident Response Plan goes a long way in combating cyberattacks. This plan focuses on the proper containment of cyberattacks and provides a mitigation roadmap for when they do occur.

4.      Security Control Evaluations (for detective, preventive, and corrective measures): a cybersecurity partner can provide much-needed guidance concerning configuring systems and implementing strong cybersecurity measures to prevent any cyberattack. This protection safeguards high-priority assets, such as patch deployments and supply chain risk assessments.

5.      Improved Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity: K-12 school districts can develop disaster recovery plans, test their execution, and update them annually with the direction of a cybersecurity partner. Such professional attention to detail increases resilience and reduces disruptions-associated risks.

Conclusion

From ‘zoom bombings’ to full-scale ransomware attacks, K-12 school districts have faced a multitude of cyberattacks in the last couple of years. Unfortunately, the threat landscape for educational institutions is expected to worsen and become more streamlined and sophisticated. Unless school institutions strengthen their cyber risk management posture with capable cybersecurity partners, their computing ecosystem will remain susceptible to increasingly complex cyberattacks for years to come.

Thankfully, the Biden Administration passed the K-12 Cybersecurity Act of 2021 to intensely focus on the need to respond directly to the increasing security incidents targeting the K-12 education sector. Therefore, the time is right for decision-makers in K-12 school districts to become proactive in combating cybersecurity challenges, and collaborating with a reliable cybersecurity partner is the best approach to dealing with the growing threats.

With professional services from vulnerability assessment to incident response, the security experts at GoldSky are positioned to enhance the cybersecurity resilience of tools, systems, and processes across entire school districts. Thus, creating a safer and conducive learning space for everyone in the physical or virtual environment.