Cybersecurity Threats in Education Institutions  

Cybersecurity Threats in Education Institutions

Every year, several American schools across educational levels experience cybersecurity threats. However, higher education institutions are at a greater risk because of the amount of information they have. To ensure important, secure information stays safe, schools must understand cybersecurity risks and create comprehensive protection plans.

Below is everything you need to know about the prevalence of cyberattacks, what kinds of cyberattacks exist and how you can protect your academic institution from bad actors.

Cybersecurity Education Statistics 

Some of the most frequent targets of computer intrusions are educational institutions. As spaces that maintain various kinds (and vast amounts) of sensitive information, from financial details to critical research, hackers have many reasons to breach their systems. Additionally, some academic institutions lack the budget to invest in proper cybersecurity measures to protect their schools, making them more vulnerable to attacks.

Recently, cybercrime in education has been on the rise. In 2019, reported cyberattacks on American schools tripled from the previous year. As COVID-19 forced instructors and students to work and study from home in 2020, protective measures further decreased and more attackers sought to target vulnerable faculty, staff, students and parents. In 2021, cybersecurity threats to the educational and research sector rose to around 1,600 per week

Microsoft Security Intelligence runs an ongoing study that assesses the details of cyberattacks each month and sorts results by industry to highlight which sectors experience more attacks. In 2020, education ranked first with around 62% of all cyberattacks in a single month. In May 2022, this rose to 82% out of 7.5 million total attacks.

Common Reasons Cyberattacks Happen to Educational Institutions

It can be challenging for higher education IT departments to protect against all types of attacks with changing technology, the increasing size of the technology perimeter (work and study from home), and the evolving ways that cybercriminals can reach data. This becomes even more complicated considering the many reasons hackers will target schools, including:

  • Disruption: A distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack is when hackers overload school servers or networks to cause overall disruption. Users may be unable to connect to networks, leading to lower productivity levels for students and staff. This attack method is easy to achieve on poorly protected systems.
  • Data theft: Colleges and universities have access to personal and sensitive information. Their online systems store data on students, faculty and vendors, from billing information to home and business addresses. Many cybercriminals target academic institutions because they collect various kinds of sensitive information. Hackers can often go unnoticed for months, allowing them to gather large sums of data slowly.
  • Financial gain: Many hackers steal information for money via ransomware/malware attacks. Cyberattackers can sell stolen data to interested parties or demand ransom from the school itself, withholding the files or access until they pay. Ransom can cost schools upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars (even millions, depending on how large the breach and the size of the institution), which can take away from other vital initiatives and result in poor press for the institution.
  • Lack of awareness: Some cybercriminals gain access to institutions’ networks and servers through students, faculty and staff who aren’t sufficiently trained to practice good cyber hygiene or accidentally compromise the network. 
  • Lack of policy and resources to monitor non-compliance: Setting out policies for using the network and making sure they’re adhered to can be difficult with a dynamic user population, particularly with IT staff already facing stretched resources.
  • Lack of or undeveloped patch and vulnerability management: Hackers can target weaker systems through findings from their reconnaissance. They try to find the system(s) that have vulnerabilities. This job is made easier by academic institutions that have a difficult time keeping up with software and system patching. All the bad actors need to find is one vulnerable system that will serve as their pivot entry point, allowing them to traverse the network to access more crucial information and increase damage.

Understanding the common reasons hackers will target your school can help you know where you might be vulnerable and determine what to look for. Any of these attacks can occur through several types of security breaches.

Common Reasons Cyberattacks Happen to Educational Institutions

3 Types of Cybersecurity Threats to Universities and Colleges

Academic institutions manage unique networks with several points of contact where scammers and hackers can get in and access valuable information. When trying to understand cybersecurity threats in education institutions, learning the common types can help.

1. Phishing Scams 

Phishing scams are when students, faculty or parents receive an email from a bad actor pretending to be someone of high importance. They might claim to be a school representative, though these scams can take on various forms — in light of COVID-19, many phishing scammers claim to be with the government trying to help people receive stimulus checks or personal protective equipment.

The goal of phishing is to gain access to login credentials, which hackers can accomplish through emailing their targets. Often, phishing emails include a link, which takes users to a login screen and prompts them to enter their credentials. If they enter the information, scammers will have access to it and be able to access their accounts for various details.

This method is especially dangerous because scammers can use it to gain several types of information from academic institutions. Phishing is extremely common, accounting for around 90% of all cyberattacks. Understanding what phishing is and how it can affect your students and staff can help you combat it. Especially when online courses and systems are prevalent in modern learning, institutions must know what precautions they should take against phishing.

2. Malware Attacks 

Malware attacks occur when hackers steal or refuse access to systems or files. This type can come in many forms, from generalized disruption to theft, so it can be challenging for colleges and universities to combat it. People will often encounter this attack type through a trojan, a normal-looking file the user downloads that actually contains the malware. Like phishing, malware files can come through email or instant messages, allowing users to trust them.

Malware is dangerous because it can spread through contact and without it. When people receive malware on their devices, communication with other devices can allow the virus to infect them, exposing more information and devices to hackers. Devices can receive malware by connecting to public Wi-Fi, and they can spread it further when they connect to private ones, causing all other connected devices to possibly receive it.

Malware Attacks 

3. Ransomware Attacks 

Ransomware attacks are a type of malware. Like typical malware, this type will block access or steal files on devices, though hackers will demand a ransom to return files or access. Because it’s a malware type, people can experience them in the same way through emails, trojans and unprotected networks.

Because they want to increase their chances of payment, hackers will likely target more sensitive or critical information with ransomware. Educational institutions are at higher risk of ransomware and its applications in their networks because of the types of data they maintain and use. With several departments on campus using the same security systems, hackers can gain access to a plethora of sensitive data.

Why Does Higher Education Need Cybersecurity? 

Several universities and colleges experience attacks for various reasons, from ransom to overall disruption, and cyber attackers can even include their staff and students. Schools often lack the technical support and security systems they need to prevent cyberattacks from occurring in the first place.

Some reasons your school needs strong cybersecurity measures include:

  • Protecting student, faculty and school information: Colleges and universities are centers for all sorts of information, making them valuable targets for cybercrimes. You have resources and databases dedicated to personal information and other essential data that helps carry out processes like registration and enrollment. They also must protect alumni and donors’ personal and financial information. Security measures can ensure only the right people access information and keep sensitive data secure and confidential.
  • Maintaining finances and budget: The average ransomware can cost higher education institutions around $112,000 to return their files and network access. This can pull funding from other areas of your school’s budget, putting a strain on the school’s finances.
  • Saving your reputation and brand: Students and families might have less trust in schools that experience cyberattacks publicly. Your school might have to pay additional fees to cover marketing campaigns to reach students, or pay for 1 to 3 years of credit monitoring for the affected users to help rebuild confidence.

Cybersecurity measures can help you take preventative steps to keep your school’s information, finances and reputation safe.

How You Can Protect Your School 

It can be challenging for schools to determine how to protect themselves because there are few cybersecurity education requirements. The lack of industry standards can make it complex for institutions to decide where to begin when implementing strong protection practices.

If you want to add standard or extra protection to your school, there are some tips you can implement to prevent hackers from accessing your information. However, the best way to provide comprehensive cybersecurity solutions for education is to allocate funds to IT departments and use adequate staffing, allowing professionals to keep your online resources safe.

How You Can Protect Your School 

1. Educate Students and Staff Regularly (and have reporting channels to alert and help increase communication and awareness)

The most basic way to keep your higher education institution safe from cyberattacks is to educate your campus. Students and professors might not understand how they can play a role in keeping the school safe, so you can provide training and educational modules that give them smart cyber tips to ensure they only engage in safe practices.

Consider including:

  • Signs of phishing information
  • Reminders about renewing virus protection
  • Details about what suspicious files look like
  • The dangers of using public, unsecured Wi-Fi
  • Strong password qualifications

It takes a village to fight cyber-crime. Having reporting channels such as abuse email distribution lists and awareness channels to report phishing attacks is essential. End users are the frontline security of the organizations and can let you know when they see something suspicious. Educate them in security principles and train them to avoid certain actions if they suspect an incident. Require this training for all faculty, staff, and students and do mandatory yearly modules for all users. This practice can ensure your campus stays up to date on cybersecurity practices.

2. Require Two-Step Authentication 

While phishing attacks can give hackers access to login information, two-step authentication can help prevent them from getting into accounts. Two-step authentication will require users to connect their accounts to an external communication method, usually a phone number or another email. When someone tries to log in to that account, the login process will require a one-time code sent to that connected account in addition to their regular credentials.

Because phishing scammers won’t have access to the external phone number or email, the data will remain safe. You can further protect accounts by asking students and staff to use unique passwords and reset passwords frequently.

3. Implement Network Segmentation 

Higher education is a unique sector for cybersecurity because of the complex networks that institutions create. Many schools encourage students to bring personal devices like laptops and smartphones and connect them to their Wi-Fi networks when on campus. Professors handle several tasks on these networks, while administration handles sensitive information to ensure payroll, tuition, registration and other processes run smoothly.

While personal devices help students and others easily complete school- and work-related tasks on devices they already own, it can cause challenges when devices don’t have adequate protection or encounter malware that can spread through networks.

Network segmentation will divide your network into smaller subcategories, each with unique security features that restrict access and protect information. This system can allow you to serve various groups at your school while protecting data from more public-facing devices, like student laptops.

4. Try a Zero-Trust Access Method 

A zero-trust access (ZTA) system is a great way to protect your systems from hackers and cyberattacks. This method only gives access to the necessary people, creating secure networks.

ZTAs also require continual confirmation for people to gain access and keep hackers away from data. Users might have to participate in CAPTCHA identifications to prove they are humans or verify they want systems to remember a specific device. You can also establish geographic parameters to prevent international hackers from reaching information.

This method is very useful and effective for the increasing amount of work and study from home that the COVID pandemic has necessitated

This method can help IT departments receive and analyze data on normal user behavior, helping them identify potential threats as they occur within your network.

5. Invest in Browser Safety Measures 

Academic institutions are at a higher risk because of the diverse populations that gather on campus and the varying kinds of work people are completing at any given time. Protect your school from cyberattacks by encouraging students to use virus protection on personal devices and installing anti-virus software on school machines. 

Virus protection can help keep students, faculty and staff from downloading files or visiting sites that might contain viruses through firewalls and scanners.

Protect Your Academic Institution With Ferrilli’s Custom Cybersecurity Solutions

As a highly targeted industry, universities and colleges need to take extra measures to protect themselves. Higher education institutions are common victims of cybercrimes because they are resources that manage crucial personal and academic information.

Schools can take steps to increase protection and security, like partnering with cybersecurity experts to create comprehensive coverage. Ferrilli specializes in higher education institutions with decades of experience, allowing us to understand your industry’s unique needs and challenges. We can work with you to analyze risks and develop a customized security system that will keep your institution, your research, and your users (students, faculty and staff) safe.

Contact us today at 888.864.3282 to discover how we can keep your information out of the hands of hackers. 

Protect Your Academic Institution With Ferrilli's Custom Cybersecurity Solutions