October is Cybersecurity Awareness month. Cyberattacks have been more prevalent in schools, with 408 disclosed attacks in 2020. What can your school do to prevent falling victim to these attacks? What are the most common threats to cybersecurity in education? Today, we’ll answer both questions.


Why Cyberattacks are on the Rise in Schools

The increase of cyberattacks can be attributed to several factors. Schools are viewed as soft and easy targets. Administrators have incorrectly believed that schools have nothing of value or worthy of taking by cyber criminals. More importantly, many schools lack the resources to build a robust cybersecurity program. Often, there isn’t a full-time employee dedicated to cybersecurity. Beyond that, districts often lack employees that have the knowledge and expertise in cybersecurity.

The pandemic also uncovered cybersecurity vulnerabilities. As schools rushed to introduce new technologies for remote learning, it created security gaps. Many schools dealt with videobombing and phishing scams.


Types of Cybersecurity Threats

Here are the most common cybersecurity threats:


Data Breach

As the name implies, a data breach is a leak of sensitive information from a secure to unsecure environment. Whether data is copied or transmitted, it is then used in an unauthorized manner. Generally, the type of information breached is confidential, like student records.


Spoofing & Phishing

Spoofing is essentially a forged email. It can appear to come from a well-known and reputable organization. Upon closer inspection, its sender is someone else entirely.

Phishing is another email scam. The sender falsely poses as a legitimate organization in the attempt to obtain sensitive information (passwords, credit cards, bank information).

Spear phishing is a type of targeted phishing. These appear to be from someone you know with a reasonable request. Upon closer inspection of the email address, you can see that the sender is unknown.


Malware, Scareware & Ransomware

Malware is software that is intentionally designed to disrupt, damage, or gain unauthorized access to a computer, server, or network. Systems can become infected when users download malware disguised as legitimate software online, through peer-to-peer sharing, or via email.

Scareware is a type of malware designed to trick users into buying unnecessary and potentially harmful software. Scareware is socially engineered to cause shock, anxiety, fear, or the perception of a threat.

Another type of malware, ransomware encrypts users’ files then demands the payment of a ransom for users to regain access to their data. Mainly delivered via spoofing or phishing scams, it can also include an element of extortion—releasing user data or images of the victim is threatened if the ransom is not paid.


Denial of Service

Denial of Service (DoS) attacks intentionally overload or disrupt servers to make a website, machine, or network unavailable. While DoS don’t typically result in data theft, they can cost the victim a significant amount of time and money.


Outdated Software

A more passive attack, outdated software creates vulnerabilities where unauthorized users can gain access to networks.


Removable Media

Perhaps not as prevalent today but still a risk in schools, removable media (USB drives, external hard drives, DVDs/CDs) can pose cybersecurity challenges. Easily stolen, these devices can be manipulated with malware. Corrupted devices can be intentionally or unknowingly connected computers. Then, device files can infect computers or networks.


Safeguarding Your School Against Threats

Key to cybersecurity in education is protecting your school against cyberattacks. Here’s what your school can do to actively prevent cyberattacks.


Define & Promote Policies

Creating and promoting computer and internet usage policies can help insulate your school from cyberthreats. These policies, like an Acceptable Use Agreement, define acceptable terms of use for computer systems. They should include any local, state, or federal regulations about information security and privacy

Equally important is creating an Incident Response Procedure in the event of a cyberattack. This will define how to respond to the attack, including operation and communication guidelines.


Update OS & Software Regularly

One of the easiest ways to prevent cyberattacks is by keeping operating systems and software up to date. Updates provide vital security patches and enhancements to both operating systems and software. Maintaining updates can be your first line of defense against malware attacks.


Store Data Securely

Data should be stored securely and in compliance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). This is particularly important with increased use of cloud systems. Data should be regularly backed up in the event of accidental or intentional corruption.


Educate Students & Faculty

Reaching young users is key in quelling the tide of cyberattacks. Do this by integrating a digital citizenship curriculum for students of all ages. Educating students on the nine elements of digital citizenship speaks to their role as a digital citizen and the responsible use of technology. Not only could this prevent future attacks from younger generations, but it can also alert young users to cyberthreats as well as how to correctly respond to such threats.

Educating staff and faculty about cybersecurity can prevent attacks that occur due to behavioral issues. Teaching the importance of strong passwords, multifactor authentication, and email etiquette can prevent these types of attacks. Training should be ongoing and sustainable.


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