What educational institutions need to do to protect themselves from cyber threats

March 30, 2021 | Nahla Davies

This blog was written by an independent guest blogger.

Educational institutions are reaping the many benefits and new possibilities offered by online learning, but these new methods of educational instruction come with serious cyber security concerns. These institutions are also a prime focus for hackers because they often host a lot of sensitive data about teachers and students. 

Furthermore, schools and universities are an easy target because not every teacher or professor is technologically savvy. In fact, many educational institutions have been caught off guard amidst the pandemic and had to rush to implement a remote learning framework that they weren’t hitherto prepared to roll out. 

The increase in the different amount of devices used to connect to a network from a wide variety of locations adds another factor of complexity when it comes to cyber defense. To make matters worse, there are laws and regulations in place that require schools to abide by certain standards. Failure to comply with these regulations can result in loss of government funding or hefty fines. 

In this article, we will talk about the most common cyber attacks facing educational institutions today and top tips on how to prevent them. 

Cyber crime is on the rise

As our society increasingly embraces a digital world, partially out of necessity due to the coronavirus pandemic, opportunities for cyber criminals grow more plentiful. In March 2020, the month that marked the onset of the confusion, fear and subsequent lockdowns caused by the global health crisis, organizations experienced a 148% increase in ransomware attacks. 

When possible, educational institutions should make efforts to allocate or obtain funding for experts that can assist in the area of cyber security. It’s not difficult to find statistics like the one mentioned above that indicate a great need for heightened vigilance towards cyber criminals. 

Ideally, a cloud-based help desk program can be vital to the cyber security of your organization, enabling staff or students to send alerts if they have reason to believe they have been hacked. A cyber security team that offers security measures such daily backups and regular security patches that can go a long way towards protecting your institution. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 

Top methods of attack used by cyber criminals against educational institutions

According to Red Canary’s “Threat Detection Report,” the top three methods of attack facing educational institutions are from process injection, windows admin shares and scheduled tasks. 

Windows admin shares

Most of us are familiar with the “administrative access” request from Windows, which is sometimes prompted when we need to install new programs or otherwise make changes to our settings. If a hacker can find a way to guess or steal an administrative user’s password, or access this through brute force, the entire system becomes compromised. 

Scheduled tasks

Windows task scheduler allows users to arrange for a program or script to be run at a specific time or under certain circumstances. 

For example, some users might schedule for an antivirus program to run a scan on their computer late in the evening when the user is less likely to be on the computer. Alternatively, a user can schedule that a certain program runs when the computer is idle for a specified amount of time, or it can be triggered when a computer is booted up.

In the wrong hands, scheduled tasks can be used to install and run malware on your computer without your knowledge. Hackers can set up scheduled tasks that are run when the computer hasn’t been used for a set period of time or late during the night to decrease the chances that you may notice it.

Process injection

Process injection forces legitimate applications to run additional code that is geared towards a nefarious purpose. 

A process injection is often used by an external program to affect the function of another program in a way the original creators did not intend. It’s also often able to hide within legitimately installed programs and is therefore tricky to detect and remove. It is considered one of the most dangerous cybersecurity risks because of this.

How to protect yourself and your educational institution from malicious hackers

These are just a few of the most vital cybersecurity tips that can help your educational organization stay safe from cyber criminals:

Use the principle of least privilege

Using the principle of least privilege, you can ensure that your staff and students only have access to the programs that they need to do their jobs or complete their schoolwork. Access to programs outside of these uses can open up the door to hackers.

Reduce surface area

One of the best ways to mitigate the negative consequences of a security breach, if it does happen, is to reduce the surface area hackers can gain access to. You can do this by dividing up your networks, so if a cyber criminal gains access to one network, he is only able to control a limited amount of files. 

Teach your teachers, students and other employees about cyber security

Did you know that up to 92% of data breaches happen due to human error? Phishing attacks, which have increased exponentially in the past year, are especially geared towards individuals who are less cyber security aware.

It’s important to engage in regular cyber security awareness training to encourage staff to engage in good cyber hygiene to protect themselves and their students. Undoubtedly, knowledge is power and a team that is well-informed about the potential cyber security risks out there will do a better job preventing them. 

Stay compliant 

It’s important to have a planned set of actions along with individuals responsible for executing them in the event of a cybersecurity attack. These should include measures that can mitigate the negative effects of the attack, access the damage and report potential data breaches or threats to the relevant authorities and your clients and staff, according to the laws in your area. 

It’s important to consider the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that protects the privacy of student’s information, as well as your local and state laws, when devising a cyber security plan to prevent and/or react to potential cyber security incidents. 

Conclusion

We are living in a world that provides amazing opportunities and limitless resources for both good and bad purposes. It’s important to focus on giving your staff and students all the tools and resources online learning offers while also protecting them from falling victim to cyber crime.

Be sure to incorporate regularly scheduled inventory checks in your cyber security plan so you can act quickly if an electronic device is lost or stolen. It’s also important to enact a strict policy among students and staff requiring them to promptly install updates and patch releases when available, as these often contain important protections against new or particularly harmful viruses.

Nahla Davies

About the Author: Nahla Davies

Nahla Davies is a software developer and tech writer. Before devoting her work full time to technical writing, she managed – among other intriguing things – to serve as a lead programmer at an Inc. 5,000 experiential branding organization whose clients include Samsung, Time Warner, Netflix, and Sony.

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