Education sector and cybersecurity: main challenges & how to overcome them

Cybersecurity in education

The motivation of cyber attacks is usually based on criminal intent to cause harm or profit financially. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for financial institutions or the health sector to fall at a higher risk of cyber threats. However, it may come as a surprise that the education sector is the primary target of digital threat actors.

Education being number one of the most attacked industries, risks apply to private and public educational institutions (schools, colleges, and universities), science research institutes, and education service providers. The issue of getting attacked lies in extremely insufficient security preparedness and unplanned shift to online environments when the pandemic hit schooling routines.

External cybersecurity challenges in the education sector

The education sector is an easy target not only for organized criminals but even for their students too. An extensive number of unprotected endpoints and networks used by organization members and outdated internal systems create suitable conditions for performing a wide range of attacks.

The most common focus of attacks split into disrupted system operations that neglect the use of internal resources or deny user access resulting in downtime. Data theft, whether research findings or student personal information, is another considerable aspect of active attacks.

From DDoS attacks to ransomware, threat actors cause danger to minors’ safety or lead to compromised intellectual property, both sold on the black market or used as leverage for ransom. Phishing attacks tend to result in stolen funds for student fees.

Troublesome context of cyber threats 

The sector is under great stress as reports show a sharp jump in increased attempts to exploit security vulnerabilities. On the one hand, educational institutions had close to no practice operating outside a dedicated setup. Thus, a sudden transition of connections to students’ and teachers’ unprotected networks massively increased security risks.

On the other hand, lacking cyber preparedness is one of the main culprits behind the rising number of threats. A typical endpoint in educational institutions has only 5.4 security controls per device, while a standard corporate device has 11.7 security apps on average — which shows in 2020-2021 statistics:

Cybersecurity in education scheme

Range & impact of data breaches 

As mentioned before, the motivation behind the attacks might vary depending on the actor, but the primary reason is obtaining sensitive information. Private data records, contact information, intellectual property, and research findings get stolen in different methods, which bring us some cases to analyze and learn from:

  • Exploited vulnerability of Dell hardware. Planted malware allowed the attackers to access networks of Massachusetts and California schools. Finding backdoors via desktop computers and servers, putting offline non-cloud services and systems.

  • 36,000 credentials for sale on the black market. FBI has issued an alert about US-based colleges and universities’ users, networks, and VPN credentials placed for sale on Russian cybercriminal forums. The price varied from a few to thousands of dollars, acquired most likely by phishing and ransomware.

  • Shut down of Illinois’ Lincoln College. A threat actor seized IoT devices, hiring and admissions applications systems, and data of a 630-student school for ransomware of under $100,000. Internal network and systems were down for 1,5 months and triggered Illinois’ Lincoln College to close after 157 years of operation.

  • Massive data breach in connection with a common vendor. Chicago Public Schools recently suffered a data breach of over 56,000 employees and 50,000 students right after NY State State Education Department informed about a data breach that impacted 565 schools — over 1 million former and present students.

  • Leaked patient health records of Washington University School of Medicine. According to the statement, the threat actor gained unauthorized access to employee email accounts for almost a month. The damage and significance of the data exposed are unclear.

Internal cybersecurity challenges in the education industry

The education industry is a significant national and global network that highly depends on governmental financing. Restricted budgets carry limitations in technological upgrades and the promotion of cyber awareness among employees and students.

Limited resources lead to a shortage of staffing which could initiate cybersecurity projects. The lack of security experts in all industries highlights a broader problem of knowledge shortage, not to mention old and late-to-patch legacy infrastructure used in most institutions. Low cybersecurity culture and almost non-existent security measures leave many backdoors open for cybercriminals.

Despite poorly managed endpoints and networks, the risk of human error, unsecured data keeping, and deficient user governance, modern technology solutions can relatively quickly and effectively mitigate malicious activity encouraged by paper-thin security measures.

Cybersecurity tendencies and strategies

Cloud computing is the most prominent direction in all digital environments making best practices applicable in different use cases throughout the industries. Organizations in the education sector can perfectly adapt to the current technological cybersecurity improvements highly driven by businesses.

Digital transformation - modernization - is critical for organizations significantly falling behind with infrastructure security upgrades. If not sure where to begin, it might be beneficial to identify the main pain points and the most effective shortcuts to eliminate them.

Compliance regulations for sensitive data

Protection of sensitive information must be a priority for organizations, particularly if it includes the personal data of minors. A way to ensure students’ safety, avoid unwanted data breaches, and prevent regulatory fines, following compliance regulations and standards put an adequate ground for internal security policies.

The education sector-relevant regulatory compliance strategies include the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) for personal data protection and developing secure-environment practices within an organization. Establishing a cybersecurity framework helps prevent external attacks and define internal security policies. Following the ISO 27001 implementation checklist guidelines might be reasonable — a standard for building an Information Security Management System (ISMS).

Infrastructure upgrade 

Migration to remote studying required a significant change in how organizational infrastructures adapt to online environments. Because of legacy perimeters, a quick transition wasn’t as smooth or complete, bringing more challenges to the organization.

Hardware upgrades are expensive and time-demanding, while cloud computing might be perceived as too challenging compared to outdated practices. However, transitioning to cloud-based architectures with business VPN capabilities is the most practical shortcut regarding time, limited resources, and long-term investments in protecting organizational networks

SASE direction

Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) framework combines best practices that help deal with security challenges, enabling security, availability, and timely upgrades. Cloud-defined SaaS solutions play an impactful role in securing user access to internal resources, network protection from external threats, and limitations of data breaches from within.

Measures like restricting specific websites that increase exposure to risks can be mitigated with IP allowlisting. Zero Trust-based user authentication and secure network access policies define organizations’ simplified yet effective cybersecurity approach.

Focusing on the establishment of the SASE framework (see it as guidelines, not a platform from a single provider), organizations manage to implement highly adaptive cloud-native environments for remote user security and connectivity, traffic filtering and optimization, data protection, and management.

How NordLayer fits educational institutions?

Cyber attacks in the education industry cause huge issues, resulting in data breaches, operational disruption, reputational damage, and financial losses that affect education service receivers’ trust.

Identifying security gaps and assessing the level of risks and vulnerabilities allow organizations to get a clearer perspective on developing cybersecurity strategies and awareness among their members.

A remote network access solution NordLayer is designed to adhere to the SASE framework enforcing seamless organizational transition to modern infrastructure. Suitable for remote and hybrid work environments, the solution is easy to deploy, combine and scale as it’s entirely cloud-based and simply integrates with existing infrastructure.

NordLayer, layer by layer, enforce network security and data protection policies, apply user identification based on Zero Trust practices and help achieve regulatory compliance requirements. Business VPN, data encryption, virtual private, and shared gateways provide the best conditions to launch security measures within minutes.

Besides a robust security model, NordLayer solves the knowledge gap issue. The solution is managed via a centralized Control Panel that allows administrators to govern user activity and enable security policies within the organization, ensuring an identified member is accessing the internal network. Protect your organization network and community of the educational institution — get in touch and learn how NordLayer fits your organization’s needs.

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